Unto Dust

a Central Corps short


This story takes place 25 years before THE COLD BETWEEN.

****

The night after Tom Foster’s wife died, he lay in the bed they used to share and stared at the ceiling, the sporadic hum of late-night shuttle traffic brittle and unreal in his head.

He did not sleep.

****

The next morning, he listened to his children arguing for more than half an hour before it occurred to him he ought to get out of bed.

He stood, still in the clothes he’d put on the previous morning, the dark trousers and close-fitting jacket that passed for casual teaching attire. He’d had them on less than an hour when the Corps Admiralty comms office had informed him there had been an accident, and he’d known the rest before they said it aloud. He’d worn them taking a shuttle to his daughter’s school, and then his son’s, to tell them their mother was not coming home this time. 

Meg had screamed and howled and beat at his chest, and he’d put his arms around her while she sobbed. Greg had blinked, and said “Are you sure?” as he stood, unmoving, across the room from his father.

It had been so much easier to tell Meg.

Meg, Tom realized, as he walked down the stairs, was doing most of the yelling. At least that much hasn’t changed, he thought, and then wondered why it would have.

“What do you think people are going to say about you?” Meg was shouting at her brother, who was leaning against the sink, arms crossed, as Tom entered the kitchen. “Your mother died yesterday, or don’t you remember?”

His daughter, Tom reflected, did not look much like his wife. Where Kate was—had been—fine-featured and delicate, Meg, at seventeen, was more like her father: sharp and frank and handsome in a way that suited her vivid personality. But she had her mother’s perfect jet-black curls and dark eyes, and her merciless ability to strike to the heart of any argument.

It was Greg who resembled his mother. At twelve, the boy was already beautiful, with the angular, masculine version of Kate’s lovely face. Kate had worried for Greg for years: he had grown tall early, and was already passing for eighteen, even older. People had been giving him things and wanting things from him for years. He was a level-headed boy, and so far hadn’t had his head turned by the attention, but Tom knew the older Greg got the more being treated as an adult would become appealing. Tom had discussed the issue with his son, but despite their similar temperaments, Tom never got past the feeling that he wasn’t getting through. It was Kate who always knew what to say to Greg, Kate who could make him laugh, think, make the right choices.

“I remember,” Greg said to his sister. His voice was low and composed, but his eyes, gray like Tom’s, were full of rage.

“If you go to school today you’re a fucking monster,” Meg said, and that shocked Tom out of his silence.

“That’s enough, Meg,” he said.

Both children looked at him, but only Meg flinched, her gaze defiant. “Dad. He can’t go to school today. They’ll never stop talking about him if he does. They’ll say he didn’t love her.”

Oh, Meggie. “Meg, honey, can you give us a minute?”

Meg shot her brother a look of triumph, and stomped off up the stairs.

Greg was watching his father with wary eyes. Tom waited until Meg’s step had faded in the direction of her bedroom, then took a breath. “I take it you want to go to school.”

“I’ve got a test today,” Greg said.

“Could get you excused,” Tom offered.

“I don’t want to be excused.”

Greg had been like this since babyhood. Even then, when something distressed him, the best thing to do was to find him another occupation—not a story or a song, but a task or a puzzle, something he could give his focus and his energy. Something with a solution. Kate had thought it a healthy adaptation. Tom always worried it was avoidance.

“What do you need, Greg?” he asked.

Greg straightened. Nearly Tom’s height already; in a year, he’d be taller. “I need to go to school.”

After a moment, Tom nodded. “Have some breakfast,” he said, “and I’ll take you in.” He headed for the meal generator, and Greg sat down at the kitchen table.

****

The day after his wife’s death, Tom Foster stayed in the house with his daughter.

Meg spent the day railing: against the Corps, against malfunctioning starships, against the Admiralty and all technology. Against her brother, and against her mother for choosing such a risky career, for leaving them when they needed her. She cried and screamed and Tom held her when she allowed it and let her be when she didn’t. The only time he interfered was when Greg came home from school and silently proceeded to his room. 

“Let him process it his own way,” Tom told her when she moved to go after her brother, and for a little while she was angry with Tom before she began railing against the world again.

That night he slept for nearly half an hour, and dreamt his entire life had been a lie.

****

The Corps gave him six days before they sent an admiral, a sober-eyed woman called Overton who was nominally Tom’s own age. She arrived in his front yard in a small, overpowered shuttle that her inexperienced pilot managed to land on top of a flowering shrub. Tom watched from his front door, squinting into the sun that shone across the surface of the lake as the Admiral and her three escorts extracted themselves from their misplaced transport.

“If you’d commed first,” he told her, once they’d come up the stairs onto the porch, “I could’ve told you how to land without flattening my garden.”

His tone, he suspected, was not terribly friendly, but Overton seemed used to such receptions. “May we come in, Mr. Foster?” she asked.

“That’s Professor,” he corrected her. “And you can come in. They can wait out here.”

All three members of her entourage wore ensign’s insignias, uniforms pristine and unwrinkled, faces professional masks. One of them was pale and pasty, and at his words a flush of color climbed up from her neckline and over her small-chinned, round face. That she didn’t otherwise move was an impressive feat of discipline. I should be more hospitable, he thought, but after Admiral Overton stepped into his house, he let the door slide closed behind her.

Overton had stopped inside the door and was surveying his living room, her eyes straying over the windows and past the stairs into the open kitchen. She was a compact woman, short and rigid, with a square, tan face, wide forehead, and unexpectedly delicate nose. Her expression was grim but relaxed, and it was only her eyes, dark and watchful, that betrayed how alert she was. He suspected, if he asked her, she could tell him without looking again exactly how many glasses he’d left on the kitchen counter.

“I’d offer you something,” he said, walking around her toward the sink, “but I don’t want you to stay.” He began picking up glasses.

“I appreciate your candor.” Tom didn’t turn around, and he heard her step closer. “I’m very sorry about your wife, Professor Foster.”

He should have let the ensigns in and left the admiral on the porch. “Your people have already sent that message,” he told her. “So why don’t you tell me why you’re really here.”

“I’m here to give my condolences.” She sounded a little surprised. “And to make sure your family has what they need.”

There it was. “If I told you what my family needs is for you to stay away,” he asked, “would you honor that?”

She was silent, and he turned at last. She was regarding him with shrewd eyes, calculating, trying to figure out how to handle him. 

He wondered, for a moment, how far he’d get if he went for her throat. All Corps officers were trained in hand-to-hand, and Tom was only a teacher; still, he had height and weight on her, and that might at least give him a head start.

“Shall we be honest, Admiral?” he said.

“By all means.”

“I know you’re watching my son. I know you’ve always been watching my son.”

“We watch anyone who’s got interest and aptitude,” she said.

“My wife worked for you people for twenty years, so don’t talk to me like I’m naive,” he snapped. “You’ve got thirty kids sector-wide, maybe two hundred in the whole galaxy, with Greg’s level of aptitude. You’ve been hovering his whole goddamned life, waiting to get your claws into him.” He took a step forward and indulged his need for violence by towering over her. “Now is not the time.”

She didn’t even flinch. “The Corps looks after our own,” she said. “Doctor Leburu had an exemplary career. It’s our duty to look after her family.”

“It was your duty to keep her alive.”

It wasn’t true. He knew it when he said it. It was an argument he’d had with Kate over and over again: how could she pledge her life to the Corps when she had two children? What the hell was wrong with her priorities?

But Overton let it pass. “Regardless, Professor, we’re not here today to address aptitude. We’re here to offer our services to anyone in your family who may need them.”

“Like my son?”

“If he wants to talk.”

“Oh, it’s talking you’re offering.” Tom knew a few Corps counselors. They were highly trained, and for the most part deeply compassionate people; but not a single soldier, up to and including his wife, ever saw them as anything but an irritating hurdle to be cleared after a bad day. “You’d talk to me, then.”

“If you’d find it helpful.”

Not fucking likely. “And my daughter.”

“She enjoys chemistry, I’m told.”

He waited a moment for the heat behind his eyes to subside. “I’m not sure it’s sensible, Admiral, for you to let on that you’re watching my daughter as well.”

She gave him a thin smile. “Your daughter isn’t going to be enlisting any time soon.”

“If you know that,” he told her, “you know that nobody in this house is interested in talking to your Corps counselors.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course.”

They looked at each other, and her expression didn’t change as she waited. When she nodded and turned to go, it should have felt like victory. “Should you change your mind, Professor,” she said, as she made her way to the door.

He wanted her out of his house. He wanted her out of his memory.

She opened the door, and immediately he heard voices: three unfamiliar, no doubt her escort, and his son’s, already nearly as deep as an adult’s. Greg sounded interested, engaged, animated; startled, Tom heard the boy laugh.

As Overton stepped through the door, the three Corps soldiers came to attention, and Greg’s face turned into a mask. Tom, who knew his child, could see the combination of embarrassment and resentment in Greg’s eyes.

“Get in the house, son,” he said. Tom kept his tone mild, but Greg knew him, too, and for a moment Tom thought the boy would defy him. But instead Greg straightened, took a moment to nod at Overton’s escort, and sauntered into the house as if he were leaving of his own accord.

Some days Tom wished for more cracks in his son’s aplomb.

“I don’t want to see you here again,” Tom said to Admiral Overton. He met the eyes of each member of her escort, one after another; the pale woman blotched scarlet again. “I don’t want to see any of you anywhere on my property. Is that understood?”

“Of course. We’ve no desire to bother you.” Her next word was a sharp command: “Company!” All four of them in unison saluted Tom.

A gesture of courtesy, for the family of the dead.

Those ensigns are children, he told himself. Twice Greg’s age. Maybe not even. They don’t understand. He kept his eyes on Admiral Overton, and he said, “Stay away from my family.”

He knew she could hear the threat in his voice, could hear he meant it. But all she did was incline her head at him, and say, “As you wish.”

He stayed on the porch long after her shuttle had vanished across the sunlit lake.

****

Eight nights after Tom Foster’s wife died, the reality of it all came crashing down on his head.

Never again. Never again her hair curled around his fingers, the smell of her sweat, the silk of her fine skin, the warmth of her body against his. Never again her musical voice, so often harsh during the fights he would always lose, because he loved her and she knew it and he’d impale himself on a hundred knives to keep her happy. Never again that sense of peace when she came home, that sense of rending when she left. Never again the plans for the future, when Greg and Meg would be grown and they would be at long last alone again, just the two of them, as it had been in the beginning when they were young and full of hope and everything was yet to come.

Never again.

He prowled the house as quietly as he could, unable to stand still, unable to focus on anything. He wanted to get out, to run down to the lake, to scream and let his agony be swallowed by the waves; but upstairs were his children, and they needed him. He’d always been their first line of defense, even when they were little, before Kate had resumed active duty and allowed herself to be taken away. He couldn’t leave them now, never mind the gaping void that was his heart.

“Dad?”

Tom had been bending over the kitchen sink, hyperventilating, a great weight over his chest preventing him from inhaling. At Greg’s voice the weight eased, and he was able to turn around and be something resembling a father.

His son stood there, in his pajama bottoms. Greg was still little-boy skinny, but he was starting to develop some definition in his biceps. He’d let his hair grow too long again; it grew straight out, and when he slept it became misshapen, flat on one side and askew on the other. Tom had tamed his own wiry hair into long dreadlocks decades ago, but he’d always suspected his son would choose short hair, like his mother’s, like they favored in the Corps.

“You all right, Greg?” Tom asked.

Greg was frowning. The frown took over his whole face, from his forehead to his eyebrows to his expressive mouth. The look was already intimidating; Tom thought Greg might find it useful someday. Only those who knew the boy well understood the look meant not anger, but concentration. 

“I was going to ask you that,” Greg said.

“Of course I am,” Tom said reflexively. He braced a hand against the kitchen counter and straightened. He realized, abruptly, that his face was wet; he didn’t remember crying. “Of course. I just couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep.” Why couldn’t he stop talking? “I couldn’t—”

“Dad.” Greg’s voice had gone soft, and he took a step forward. “Dad. It’s okay.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said again, and this time he noticed when the tears started. “Greg. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”

His legs couldn’t hold him, then, and his knees hit the kitchen floor, and he kept stammering but there were no words anymore. And without hesitation his reticent, angry son knelt on the floor before his father and put his skinny arms around him, and Tom sobbed and sobbed as Greg rubbed his back and said “It’s okay, Dad. It’s okay.”

****

Fourteen days after his wife’s death, Tom went to a bar.

Tom never enjoyed going to bars on his own. Drinking wasn’t one of his great pleasures; he did not get drunk easily, and he was mostly indifferent to the taste. Kate liked to drink. They would go out together, and she would get tipsy and affectionate and silly, and sometimes crawl into his lap in public, never mind they were both over forty and too serious for such behavior at the best of times. When they got home he would bundle her up in his arms—she was tall but slim, and she folded up against his chest like she was built to fit there—and carry her to their bedroom. As often as not she would fall immediately asleep, and he would lie next to her and watch her breathe, content beyond imagining.

Meg always rolled her eyes when she caught her parents flirting, but she had told him once that as much as it embarrassed her it also made her happy.

This bar was open-air, an optimistic setup for Otter Lake in the fall, but somehow the place survived season after season. It had avoided, over decades, the sporadic trend of full automation and survived swapping one taciturn bartender for another. Tom didn’t remember this one, a sturdy, efficient woman of indeterminate age, but she brought him two fingers of scotch without his asking, and set it down before him just as he sat next to his friend.

Bob Hastings had two empty glasses in front of him, and was most of the way through a third. By the look of him, he’d been well on his way before the first of those glasses had arrived.

Tom nursed his own drink, feeling the comforting burn down his throat, the slight loosening in his limbs. He had thought, more than once in the last two weeks, of coming here and doing what Bob seemed to be doing: drinking for as long as he was able to stay upright, and then drinking some more. He was not sure there was a reasonable conclusion to that path.

“You look like hell,” Tom said at last.

Bob Hastings almost never looked like hell. He was a little older than Tom, with a slighter build but far more muscle. Tom was not one to notice male beauty, but he’d seen enough people stop and stare at Bob Hastings to know that the man’s sculpted face and brilliant blue eyes held a nearly universal appeal. Usually those eyes were filled with good humor, and occasionally light cynicism, but not now. Tom had known Bob for twelve years, and knew the man was far more soft-hearted than he cared to let on to most of the world.

He was also the only other person alive who understood what Tom was going through.

Bob put down his empty glass and caught the bartender’s eye again. “That’s because I’ve been drunk for two weeks.”

“Impressive,” Tom remarked.

“I keep waiting for it to kill me,” Bob confided. “So far, no luck.”

Tom took another sip. “This stuff’s too good. You should try distilling your own.”

“I did that once. Took me a month to get anything decent. Inefficient.” The bartender returned, and Bob started in on the new drink. “Which one did they send?”

“Overton,” Tom told him.

Bob snorted. “They knew you were pissed off.”

They had known he was pissed off since the day he and Kate met. “How much do I have to worry about this?” he asked.

Bob considered. “Sending Overton means they want your good will,” he said.

“That cold-hearted ice age cyborg?”

“If they’d wanted to railroad you,” Bob reminded him, “they’d have sent someone like Turay who would have given you some bullshit about politics and new frontiers and supporting what Katie loved, that kind of manipulative shit. They know you prefer a straight shooter.”

It was Tom’s turn to snort. “Not an admiral in that outfit wouldn’t point the gun right on target and still hit themselves in the ass.”

“Yeah, but Overton’s the closest. She spouts the bullshit, but she doesn’t try to make it what it isn’t. You throw her out?”

“Yep.”

“She give you any trouble?”

“No.” Which wasn’t precisely true. He told Bob what he’d found when he left the house. “I don’t know what to do with Greg,” he confessed. “He holds it all so close. He doesn’t talk about anything. He’s focusing on his routine, and I guess sticking with what he knows is helping. But—” Tom remembered his son’s laugh. “There’s so much in his head, Bob, and I’ve never been able to get at it. That was always Kate. Now…”

He fell silent, and he drank, and Bob drained another glass. They were quiet for a long time.

“I’m not sure I’m the best person to talk to him,” Bob said at last.

“He knows I’ve always hated the Corps. You’re qualified, and you’re one of them. That gives you more leverage than I’ve got.”

“I’m not sure I’m the best person to give him the this is how you go on when someone you love dies speech.”

“Then don’t give him that speech.” Tom looked over at him. “Just…he needs to talk to someone, and he won’t talk to me. He might talk to you. Will you try?”

Bob met Tom’s eyes, and for an instant the agony Tom saw there was so much a mirror of his own he thought he would collapse. 

“Everyone says he’s so much like Katie,” Bob said. “Not just how he looks. His ambitions. His temper. They’re wrong, you know. He’s just like you.”

“That’s why I can’t get in.”

At last, Bob nodded his head. “I’ll talk to him,” he promised. “I’ll try.”

A breeze blew in over the lake, and Tom smelled that stagnant tang the water took on when they were overdue for rain. When he finally asked, “What happened, Bob?” he was almost sure he was ready to hear the answer.

Bob’s reflexive bravado failed, and he became suddenly everything Tom felt himself: ancient, bewildered, lost and grieving. “The official story,” Bob said. “is that the drive blew when they tried to initiate the field.”

“I heard the official story. I want to know what happened.

“All I have is rumor.”

“What about the flight recorder?”

“They haven’t got it.”

Tom turned to stare at him. “You’re telling me an engine explosion is enough to destroy a Corps-manufactured flight recorder?”

“Nope.”

He studied the bottom of his glass, and Tom waited.

“I get away with a lot of shit, you know,” Bob said. “Always have. Since I was a kid. Makes me an asshole, I think.” He put the glass down, and this time he didn’t signal the bartender for another. “Katie never let me get away with shit. Not once. Not from the day I met her.”

Tom inhaled patience. “She trusted you,” he said. “Maybe five people in her whole life, including me, that she trusted.”

“I should’ve taken that assignment.”

“They didn’t offer it to you,” Tom pointed out. “And if she wasn’t going to give it up for her kids, why do you think she’d have given it up for you?” I don’t need you getting rootbound in your own guilt.

“I loved her, you know.”

“We’ve had this conversation. Now stop being a maudlin fucking drunk and tell me what happened to my wife.”

Bob inhaled, then exhaled, then nodded to the bartender. “When I say it’s all rumor,” he said, “I don’t mean rumor we all know is truth rumor. I mean rumor. Rumor that’s honest to God no more than speculation. All I do know is that it wasn’t a fucking engine explosion, because that’s bullshit on its face.” He rubbed a hand through his hair. “Some people are saying Andy Kelso went crazy and blew the ship himself.”

“I’ve heard that one.” Tom had dismissed it immediately. Kate would have known if her captain was that unstable.

“There’s also the rumor of aliens.”

Everyone wanted aliens to exist, and in nearly a thousand years of exploring the galaxy, no one had found a shred of evidence that they did. “They’ve sent probes into that wormhole for decades,” Tom said. “You’re telling me it took the Phoenix doing a fly-by to attract alien attention? Please.”

“And then,” Bob said, “there’s the rumor that the wormhole spat something out.”

Tom looked over, but Bob wouldn’t meet his eyes. “You think there’s something to that one.”

Bob shrugged; as drunk as he was, the gesture was graceless. “You got me, Tom. They picked up all kinds of crazy readings after the explosion; but that place is going to be irradiated for forty years. Nothing they’re picking up is reliable yet. It’ll be five years at least before they can even verify the size of the blast.” 

“But you think that’s what happened.”

This time it was Bob’s turn to be introspective. “I think,” he said at last, “that I don’t want it to be an accident. That I don’t want to have lost her to some bullshit engine overload glitch that should have been designed out of our starships twenty years ago. That I want there to be something to come out of it, some reason she didn’t die for nothing.”

“Everybody dies for nothing,” Tom said.

Tom knew Bob Hastings well enough to understand why the man started to laugh.

****

“Say that again, son?”

Greg straightened, his eyes shifting toward the wall. “I’m going to quit the Corps prep program.”

Three weeks after his wife was killed, Tom Foster had been in his living room, scrolling through an inbox flooded with nightmarish condolences and bureaucratic nonsense around Kate’s death, when his children came home from school together. That in itself was suspicious; Meg, five years older than her brother, generally wanted nothing to do with Greg in public. What was even more suspicious was that she looked anxious, and a little pleased, and was hovering over Greg as if he were a much smaller child.

And Greg was putting up with it.

At her brother’s words, Meg met Tom’s eyes, and she looked so hopeful and hungry for approval that if he’d had any heart left it would have broken. 

I guess it’s time for me to start parenting again.

“Meg, sweetheart,” he said, giving her a gentle smile, “can you let your brother and I talk for a bit?”

“Of course.” She reached out and rubbed Greg’s arm, encouraging, approving, and headed up the stairs.

Tom waited until he heard her door close.

“This her idea?” Tom asked.

Greg shook his head. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”

Tom suspected if he’d been eavesdropping more on his children he’d have found Meg working long and hard to plant the thought in her brother’s head. “Why do you want to quit?”

At that Greg met Tom’s eyes, just for a moment, and Tom caught confusion and uncertainty. He thought I’d approve, Tom realized. He thought I’d jump at this. “It’s not the only thing there is,” Greg said.

“So what do you think you’ll do?”

Greg shifted from foot to foot. “I could teach. Like you do.”

Definitely Meg’s idea. “You’d make a fine teacher, I’m sure,” Tom said, and he meant it. Greg had both charm and patience when he chose, and he seemed reasonably good at breaking down ideas into simpler components. “Why do you want to teach?”

And with one shrug, Greg was a little boy again. “It’s a good job,” he said. “It’s important.”

“Lot of things are important.”

“It’s here,” Greg said. “I could, I don’t know. Stay close by.”

Aha. “To take care of me.”

“Why not?”

There was an edge of resentment to Greg’s statement, the beginnings of a teenaged separation that Tom had long suspected was going to be hell on them both. Meg had led Greg to expect he’d be rewarded for this move, that he’d have Tom’s gratitude, that he could join his sister in becoming caretakers for their father, so abruptly all alone.

Meg he’d have to deal with later, and there would be yelling and recriminations and her uncanny ability to slip a verbal dagger between his ribs. Her mother’s daughter, indeed. But before him was Greg, twelve going on forty, trying to figure out what his life of service was supposed to look like now that the Corps had killed his mother.

It’s never been about the Corps, Tom wanted to say to him. Even for your mother, it was never about the Corps. It was about being out there, the wonder, the unknown. The adventure. Even helping people, even the catastrophic rescues—that all came second. She went out there because she had to, because it fed her soul like nothing else in her life, not me, not Meg, not you. You could have told her it would take her life someday. You could even have told her when and how. And she wouldn’t have stopped. Do you see it, son? If she couldn’t stay for you, she couldn’t stay. And you can’t stay for me.

Tom leaned back on the sofa and looked up at his son. “If teaching is what you want, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if you give up your dream out of some misguided idea that it’s what I want, or what Meggie wants, or for any reason other than it’s stopped being your dream, I’ll put you out of this house and you can sacrifice all your hard work for someone else. You understand?”

Greg grew very still, and Tom watched his face: irritation, then anger, then embarrassment. And finally, definitively, relief. He didn’t smile, but his eyes lit up in a way Tom hadn’t seen since the last time Kate was home.

“What about Meg?” Greg asked.

“You let me take care of your sister.”

“She’s going to be mad at me.”

“Yeah, she is. But she needs to follow her dreams, too, Greg. And it’s my job to make sure she feels she can do that.”

A look of understanding passed between the two of them, and then Greg started bouncing on his toes. “Do I have time for a run before dinner?” he asked.

“If you run fast.”

At that, Greg flashed a grin, and he turned and dashed out the front door, all child once again.

****

Four weeks after his wife died, Tom watched his son leave the house to visit Bob Hastings, Lieutenant Commander, Central Corps Medical, to talk about losing his mother.

Tom pretended he didn’t know where Greg was going.