Go Home, And Be With Your Families
by Steven R. Stewart
Herb walked past his phone's charging station on his way to refill his Crown and
Coke. The little red light in the corner of the phone's screen was still blinking.
Herb had vaguely hoped that it would disappear if he ignored it long enough. He
shut his eyes, counted to three, and reopened them. The light hadn't gone away,
and neither had the voicemail message it indicated. He knew who the message was
from. It was from Triela, his 16 year-old daughter, and that made it stressful
Without meaning to, Herb walked to the marble counter where the phone sat
charging, leaned on his hands and said, "Voicemail." It was probably the alcohol
that made him do it. The phone screen lit up, and after the pretty, sterile voice was
done advertising the mobile carrier Herb was already with, Triela's voice came on.
"Dad," she said. "Hi. You haven't called me in three weeks. Nobody is that busy,
not even you. I understand you're probably worried by now that I'm going to do
the bitchy daughter thing and ream you for ignoring me for almost a month, or that
Mom has finally succeeded in turning me against you, or that I'm going to be mad
that I had to find out about May from Pat."
May was Herb's new fiancé that neither Triela nor Herb's ex-wife knew about. Pat
was Herb's agent. And now Pat was going to get fired. Or killed.
"I'm actually happy for you," Triela's voice continued. "She sounds like a cool
chick. And Mom and I don't want you to be alone forever. Okay, maybe Mom
does. The point is, you should have told me. I'm not okay here, Dad. I sound okay
because I'm trying to communicate rationally with you right now, because I think
that's what you need, but I'm actually really pissed. And I've made a decision.
Kind of a big one, so I need you to listen. This is the last message I'm going to
leave you. The ball's in your court. It's up to you to show me you still . . . you
The message paused for a moment, and Herb wondered if maybe she had gotten
cut off. He started to take another drink but stopped when the message continued.
Triela was crying.
"Speaking of balls, Dad, just grow some and call me. You're the biggest coward
I've ever met, and if you're incapable of returning a simple phone call, then I don't
need you in my life." Another pause. An angry sigh. "And for the record, it wasn't
easy to make this call either."
"To delete this message, say 'delete'," the pretty, sterile voice said. "To save it in
your archives, say, 'save.'"
Herb downed the rest of his Crown and Coke and stared at the white tile of the
kitchen floor. He couldn't call Triela. For one thing, the message was already days
old. And besides, what would he say? That he was sorry for allowing his marriage
to implode -- and Triela's sense of stability along with it? That he was sorry for
pursuing his dream instead of staying in the Midwest and doing radio for the rest of
his life? There wasn't anything to say. She had him pegged.
"Are you still there?" the phone asked.
"Delete," Herb said.
Triela could call him a coward all she wanted. She could even be right, but he
wouldn't call her back this time. He had tried the family thing, and it hadn't
worked. Maybe things would go better with May. There was an old song Herb used
to like that said, "I'd like to say that I'm a faithful man, but it may not be true." It
wasn't true then, even if he had thought it was, and maybe it wasn't true now. But
however things went with May, Herb had to stop hurting Triela.
Herb had a painful thought then, a vision of Triela when she was about three,
sitting on his lap at the computer as he tried to record samples for his voice-acting
portfolio. She bounced up and down on his knee, pointing at the different colored
bars on the monitor and saying, "Daddy's recordin'. Daddy's makin' samples."
She had said "samples" like it was two words. "Sammmm-pulls!" And she had
messed up every other recording by talking or squealing or kicking the desk, but
Herb hadn't minded at all. Even when things were hard, Triela had been a joy.
Herb shook the image from his head and practically ran to the cupboard for a refill.
"Next unheard message," the phone said.
Herb took a drink, felt the warmth spread into his stomach and up into his brain.
The image of three-year-old Triela blurred and finally faded.
"Herb, this is Pat."
Herb smiled and angrily shook his head. Herb had some words for good old Pat for
letting it slip that Herb was engaged again.
"Call me, buddy," Pat's voice said. "This is big."
And that was the whole message. The pretty, sterile voice came on and dated the
message, 1:45 p.m. March 8th, 2020. An hour ago, when Herb had still been
Sunday was Herb's day off, but Pat had sounded excited. And Pat had that L.A.
agent poker face. He never sounded excited, even when things really were exciting.
Curiosity overcoming his anger, Herb picked up the phone and said, "Pat." The
phone began to ring.
Herb had worked in radio before moving the family to Los Angeles in 2009 so he
could concentrate on doing voice-over work. Once on the west coast, he voiced
mostly anime and video games franchises, occasionally working on foreign films
or narrating NatGeo specials. But Herb didn't find his true calling until 2014, when
the first ETTV shows were purchased from SETI.
When the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute launched its
HArV-E3 satellite in December 2012, it began receiving alien signals almost
immediately. And not just radio signals, but television as well. Once filtered and
corrected, the picture proved quite clear. On the morning of January 21, 2013, a
handful of SETI employees gathered in a dimly-lit conference room. Huddled
together, tearful, cursing under their breath, sometimes hugging, sometimes
laughing out loud, they were the first human beings ever to set eyes on an alien
Not only were we not alone, we had brothers. They were like us. Smaller, because
of the high gravity of their larger planet. Paler, with larger eyes, because of dim
conditions caused by heavy cloud cover in the upper atmosphere. But they smiled
like us. And hugged like us. They grew vegetables, and went to church, and fell in
In the early television shows, the aliens wore dramatic face paint to emphasize
their expressions on camera. One analyst drew a parallel to Japanese Kabuki
theater, the name stuck, and the aliens became the Kabuki. It wasn't until the later
shows, the ones that reached SETI in mid 2015, that the makeup became more
subtle. And the variety of programming began to broaden.
At first SETI kept all this a secret from the general public, though they brought in
dozens of linguists and social scientists and television historians to make sense of
the incredible content that was arriving, day after day, hour after hour. The very
fact that the Kabuki were so similar to us, not just biologically but technologically,
gave a lot of credence to the idea that life was seeded, and even tended, on Earth
and planets like it.
The stream of content continued. Advertisements for cereal. Newscasts. "Feed the
Children"-like commercials. Nature shows with animals and plants vaguely
familiar -- bird, dog, fish, tree -- yet different enough to ignite our imaginations.
There were even baseball games. As it turned out, America's pastime was quite
literally a gift from God -- or his equivalent. But the Kabuki's outfielders were
better. The analysts had had a good laugh over that one.
That's when SETI started approaching the media companies. TimeWarner was the
first to bite, and a handful of other mega-companies quickly followed suit. Six
months and one announcement later, the media world exploded.
Herb's career had exploded with it, and if Pat was even half-right about the deal
the execs were offering him, Herb would be set for the next five years -- if the Los
Angeles traffic ever let up and allowed Herb to get to the meeting. Herb scanned
for an alternate route, but his GPS's Darth Vader voice calmly informed him that
no alternate routes were possible. Herb lit a cigarette and tried not to look at his
watch or the translucent GPS display on his windshield. He'd get there when he
got there. No sense in farming ulcers.
The new TimeWarner building was huge, looking like something out of the
Jetson's. Or maybe Dubai. Herb had only been here a handful of times, and he
always managed to get lost. This time, Herb chose the right elevator on the first try,
a glass one so fast it made his ears pop. When the doors opened, Herb walked,
working his jaw and trying to yawn, down the hall. The receptionist waved him in.
Pat was there at the marble table waiting for him. Pat was the kind of man who
would have looked good with glasses, but Pat would never wear glasses purely for
fashion reasons, so his eyes remained beady, dull. Even so, there was no mistaking
the expression in them: there might as well have been dollar signs.
Herb didn't recognize the other two men in the room. But then Herb had never
even been on this floor.
"Have a seat, buddy," an exec in a short-sleeved, black shirt told him. The man had
full tattoo sleeves complete with swirling koi fish and a samurai. "You want a
drink." It wasn't a question.
"Hell, yes, I do," Herb said. "Crown and Coke. It's been tasting good recently."
"Old school, I like it," the other man said. This guy had a slick suit and a shark's
smile. After a moment at the extensive mini-bar, the man returned with a Crown
and Coke -- with lime, fancy fancy -- and set it down in front of Herb. "Dig in,
champ. Service with a smile."
Herb sipped the drink. The lime didn't add much, just killed the fizz and muddied
up the flavor.
"Well, we're not going to give you the song and dance," the man with the tattoos
said. "Our casting director is pissed enough that we wanted to give you the news
ourselves. But this is bigger than one role, am I right?" He shot a knowing grin at
the man with the shark smile.
"What Spence is trying to say," Shark-Man said, "is that we don't want to waste
"Truth," Spence -- the tattoo guy -- said. "So here you go, Herb. I'll bottom line it
for you. Our test audiences love you. The public loves you. And on a personal
note, we love you. Am I right?" Shark-Man nodded. "You've got a great voice,
that perfect blend of vulnerability, strength, awkward humor, and baritone
"But more important than what we think is this: People are really starting to
associate you with Mato. More than any of the other guys who do his roles."
Mato was one of the best-known alien actors. He was taller than most Kabuki, and
his hair grew in a shaggy lion's mane around his head. He would have looked
forbidding if not for his eyes. Mato had kind, strong eyes. Fatherly eyes.
Mato was something of a hero in his own culture. He had been a pilot in a world
war against an army of human sized, termite-like invaders that had threatened the
very existence of the Kabuki. The winged termites had been deadly opponents,
both agile and fearless. But Mato made a name for himself by being that much
quicker, that much fiercer in the skies. He began his acting career shortly after his
discharge, working on films based on the war he had just finished fighting. He was
an instant success and became so beloved that one Kabuki politician even called
him "Son of the World."
Herb had done several of Mato's roles. That was the odd thing about ETTV - not
only were you portraying a character, you were portraying the actor portraying that
character. And all that with only your voice as a tool. It was challenging, but
Herb's fondness for Mato made portraying him, even in the simplest scene, deeply
fulfilling. Mato was the reason Herb made the transition to doing ETTV almost
exclusively. Because it was more than just fondness. When Herb was playing
Mato, he saw a better version of himself than he could glimpse any other way.
Herb said, "Thank you, but I know for a fact that Jason Hubert has a lot of fans."
Jason Hubert was another actor who did a lot of Mato's roles.
"Hubert is trash compared to you," Spence said. "Nice guy, but it's true."
"I've always thought so," Pat said and gave Herb a thumbs up.
"The point is," Shark-Man said, "the company has acquired the rest of Mato's
work; past, present, and future. And there is an upcoming show that the SETI guys
say the Kabuki have -- or had, depends on how you look at it -- slotted for five
years. It's called 'We Family,' and we should have the premiere ready to dub in a
week. It's solid stuff. Neo-Nostalgia in vitro."
Herb wasn't sure he knew what that meant.
"This is a tricky business," Spence said. "Getting these shows on tap like this is
stressful. You never know when the flow is going to stop. We like things we can
count on. And now that we have all the rights and assurances, we want to settle on
one actor for all future roles."
"That actor," Shark-Man said, "is you, my friend."
Whoa. That meant --
Herb would be playing all of Mato's roles from now on.
The realization hit Herb hard, and he almost choked on an ice cube. Pat looked at
him and grinned wildly, as if to say, See? Aren't I the best agent in the universe?
"Wow," Herb said, coughing. He didn't know how to put into words what he was
feeling. It was the bittersweet realization that he had just achieved everything he
had set out to achieve in the voice-acting world, and more. After this, everything
"I know," Spence said, nodding. "It's a huge opportunity and a lot to take in. But
we're happy to have you on board."
Spence and Shark-Man extended their hands to shake. Vaguely pleased, a little
numb, and feeling like his life was on fast-forward, Herb shook them.
After dark, at a bar down the street, Herb bought Pat a drink.
"I'd love those guys if I didn't hate them so much," Herb said.
"What is this?" Pat said. "You should be wanting to have their executive babies
right now. You're set for life, man. You're Captain Kirk. You're Luke Skywalker.
Because they picked you."
Herb took a long drink. He wished he could smoke in here. Where could you
smoke, if not in a bar?
"Exactly," Herb said. "They were too nice, like give-me-diabetes nice. I'm not
used to suits cuddling up to me."
"Get used to it. I could."
Herb ordered a wheat beer. There was a lemon floating in it. Couldn't anyone drink
alcohol in this city without citrus?
Herb picked out the lemon and took a sip. "I just miss the hunger, Pat. I lost it
"I think that's why you got into the game in the first place," Pat said. "You thrive
Herb thought about that. Was that why he'd relocated -- then lost -- his family,
ditched the radio job, and moved out here without any guarantees?
"No," Herb said. "That isn't why I did it. I got into voice acting because I could
act. I didn't have to --" Herb stopped talking. He didn't want to finish that
thought, not out loud.
When Herb was doing voice-over work, he could hide his face, hide his voice
behind accents and over-enunciation. He could lose himself. And when he lost
himself, he could forget how he had, not even dramatically, but slowly and
systematically, squeezed himself out of his marriage. By putting all the things he
cared about in his office, away from the rest of the house. By being cold and calm
in their arguments, not offering anything of himself, not even giving Rebecca --
his ex-wife -- the opportunity to change him with the things she said. The sex
died. The love faded. Even civility became out of the question when the contempt
crept in. So he and Rebecca did the logical thing. The divorce was finalized on
Herb's 35th birthday.
Triela became his whole family after that, and she had been enough, for a while.
Until she got old enough to be disappointed in him, to make faces that reminded
Herb so much of Rebecca. And Herb began to pull away from her too.
So, yes, it felt good to leave all that behind and pretend you were somebody else,
somebody strong, somebody like Mato.
Herb liked Pat, but he didn't trust him. Not enough to share all that.
"Escape," Pat said. "I get it."
"Damn right, it was escape," Herb said. "And when ETTV rolled around, it became
more than that. You know the auto-translation technology in the new Google
phones? Everybody's talking to each other in whatever language they want, and
they're still getting the meaning dead wrong. They're still not communicating. And
how about the fact that half the US population has emo-chips in their brains for
"I have an emo-chip," Pat said. "It's fantastic. You should get one."
"Never. It's like fast food in the 90s. The meat lobbyists had everybody's hands
tied, so everybody was eating ten times more meat than they needed."
"Beef, it's what's for dinner," Pat said.
"Exactly. This emo-chip thing is the same. Everybody has their glands jacked into
the TV so their desensitized asses can still cry at Old Yeller."
"Dude," Pat said. "I cried like a baby."
Herb slapped the bar. "But the ETTV shows, they make me feel like things are
"Things always sucked," Pat said. "The good ol' days never existed."
"Don't give me that," Herb said. "Mato's characters face real problems. All the
Kabuki do. But at least they talk to each other. Face to face. They eat food that they
grow in their own rooftop gardens. They walk places. They go fishing. They look
at the damn sky from time to time."
"They're closer to the middle of the galaxy," Pat said. "More to look at. I'd look at
the sky, too."
"The point is, ETTV feels real in a way that none of this does. The Kabuki put real
love and honesty into their TV shows, and then we just twist the whole culture.
You know how the Kabuki tie one of their sleeves up to show that they're off work
for the day?"
"The kids have turned that into some kind of fad. All it means now is, 'I'm lazy
and proud of it. I don't want to do my homework.' It's disgusting."
Pat shook his head. "You can't help how you feel, I guess. But, as your friend, I
think you should get off your pedestal and come down here on planet Earth with
the rest of us. We're all still trying. 4-D TV didn't take our souls away. If you want
a real life, make it."
Herb hit the bar again. "It's not that simple!"
"Because . . ." Herb held up his phone. "Because I'm a coward."
"You're about to get married again. You need to stop making your families
"I can't. It's built into me."
"That's a cop out," Pat said.
"Go to hell, Pat. You're just my agent."
Pat downed the last of his drink and stood up. "I wonder if TimeWarner knows
they just signed the biggest whiner in the universe to play their hero." Pat began to
walk away, then turned around and said, "In the morning, when I sober up, I'm
going to kick myself for talking to a client like this, but here it is: You need to
grow some guts. Rejoin the human race."
Herb stared ahead at the bottles and waved Pat away. An hour later, Herb left the
bar and paid a cab to drive him around in the rain. May called him twice to ask
how the meeting went. He silenced both her calls.
Herb told the cabby to keep driving, even if Herb fell asleep, just keep moving.
After all, he could afford it.
Herb began recording a week later. Sitting in the foam booth, listening to beeps
that told him when to come in, Herb did what he always did these days: he dug
deep and faked it.
When Mato's character told his son that it was a man's duty to own up to his
mistakes with humility and the willingness to set it right, Herb got applause from
the directors. When Mato's character hugged his daughter and told her that he was
proud of her, that he would always be proud of her, no matter what she did, Herb
actually made the sound tech cry. But it was just Herb's vocal chords and
experience doing the work, pure instrumentation. Inside, Herb was bitter. He
couldn't imagine saying those words to anyone, not to May, not to Triela.
Life would be so much easier if there were a script, and someone on the screen to
show him how to deliver the lines.
After the session, Herb ducked into the bathroom and drained his flask in a series
of long gulps. He leaned his head on the mirror and tried to imagine Mato, there,
behind his eyes.
"You make it look so easy," he told his reflection.
On the second day of recording, Herb's phone went off while he was in the
recording booth doing a scene. He quickly silenced it, apologized to the director
for leaving it on, and continued. In the early days, he would have gotten reamed,
but this director just laughed it off, even made jokes to keep Herb from feeling
embarrassed. Herb guessed he could get away with anything these days -- the
brink of superstardom had its perks. A moment into the next take, the phone
vibrated in his pocket again. When the take was over, Herb pulled the phone out
again, turned the vibration off and put it back in his pocket.
Hours later, in the lounge, Herb saw that he had eleven missed calls and one text
message. All from Rebecca. Herb's stomach knotted up as he poked the screen to
pull up the text. Calls were easy to ignore, you just didn't pick up. But there was
something about texts -- short, easy, unassuming texts -- that just beckoned you.
"You shit," the text said. Herb stopped eating his fiber bar. "Your daughter needed
a father today. There are no words, Herb. No words."
Herb's whole body felt cold and itchy. He leaned forward onto the little bamboo
table, crushing the fiber bar in his hand.
Triela had needed him. Why?
Herb wracked his brain. Was it her graduation? No, it was the wrong time of the
year for that. Besides, Triela was still only sixteen. Her birthday? No, her birthday
wasn't until June. June -- Was it the twenty-fourth or the twenty-sixth? He knew it
was an even number. He couldn't believe he had forgotten it. He tried to picture
signing her birth certificate. He could remember the greenish paper clearly, the
decorative trim, but the middle numbers of the date kept swirling in his memory,
fading from 24 to 26.
Maybe Triela was pregnant. Maybe she was getting married young and needed his
consent. That seemed impossible, but was it? A fatherless girl in southern
California getting pregnant -- it was almost a cliché it was so common.
He read the text message again. Herb didn't know how he felt or even how he
should feel. He wanted to call Triela, but he honestly didn't know what he would
say to her. He picked up his phone, scrolled through the contacts and stared at the
little portrait of Triela. She was about fourteen, wearing a party hat, and looking
like she couldn't wait to get the stupid thing off her head. It seemed like only a day
ago. Herb knew people said that all the time, but really.
Herb's finger hovered over the call button for a full minute. It felt like there was a
wall of steel between his finger and the screen of his phone. How could he offer
her support, or help, or advice? He would have to apologize for so many things,
wade through a laundry list of grievances before even getting to "hello." And if he
did manage to make it through all that, he would just disappoint her again. Sooner
or later. Like Old Faithful, it was a matter of time.
With a growl, Herb locked his phone and slammed it down on the table. Something
crunched. He looked at the phone, at the spider-web crack in the screen. He sighed,
then absently lifted the broken phone to his ear.
"Triela," Herb said. "Whatever you're going through, you don't need me." He took
a deep breath and tried to keep the tears in his eyes from falling down his cheeks. If
they fell, that meant he was crying, and he couldn't have that. Just couldn't.
"Hang in there, girlie," he told the broken phone.
Herb spent the weekend in his apartment getting drunk, except on Saturday when
May came over to make him a recipe she had found on a blog -- smoked gouda
cheese straws. They were more or less long Cheez-Its, but Herb ate every last one
while he and May watched an old Kurosawa movie and talked about May's job as
a personal trainer and traceur. In the gym, she had done a pop-gainer-kong combo
that looked fake it was so perfect. Herb watched the video on May's phone at least
ten times, and then fell asleep with her on the couch. All Herb could think the
whole time was that he didn't deserve her, that he wished he was selfless enough to
tell her to run, quick, and marry someone else. Someone like Mato.
Sunday, Herb stayed indoors and played an improvised drinking game called
"Think About Triela, Take a Shot." He almost didn't hear Pat's call to his laptop
Monday morning -- his replacement phone was due to arrive in the mail this
"They need you at the TimeWarner building," Pat's message said. "I'm not sure
what's going on, but from their voices I'd say it's hitting the fan. I don't care what
you're doing, get over there. Call me when you get this."
Pat sounded terrified. Herb threw on some clothes and was inside a cab in ten
Shark-Man was sitting at the head of the table alone when Pat and Herb entered the
conference room. His tie was loosened to the point of falling off and he looked like
he hadn't shaved. There was no hint of his gleaming white smile.
"Herb," Shark-Man said. "Sit down."
Herb's mind reeled. Had he done something when he was drunk? Made a phone
call or something? He honestly couldn't remember.
"Pat, wait outside," Shark-Man continued.
Pat looked startled and nodded to Herb as if to say, "Dear God, fix this."
With Pat gone, the room felt huge and cold. Shark-Man opened his mouth a few
times before anything came out, and when it did, the words came in disbelieving
"We. Are. Facing. The extinction of. The entire ETTV industry."
The words hung in the air.
"What do you mean?" Herb finally asked.
"We got a call from SETI this morning. Said we'd want to take a look at their
newest acquisitions. So they streamed the footage over."
Shark-Man pushed play on a remote. The screen on the wall behind him lit up. It
was a Kabuki city square. Mato was holding a microphone and standing on a large
wooden platform. In front of him, stretching for what seemed like miles, were
Kabuki citizens, every last one of them holding a candle. It looked like the ocean at
sunset. Mato was speaking into the microphone, his gaze steady, his hair blowing
in the wind. The crowd was silent, except for occasional wails and sobs that drifted
into Mato's microphone.
Herb had never seen Mato so passionate, so full of emotion and strength.
"What is this?" Herb asked. "What is he saying? Is this part of a show?"
"No," Shark-Man said. "No, it isn't. It's a candlelight vigil. We received this
footage last night. The Kabuki are gone, Herb. They're all dead."
The words were like a cold wind. "You're going to have to explain that to me."
"In a way," Shark-Man said, "it shouldn't be any big surprise. It takes light-years
for their signals to reach us. We're seeing their past, so the chance that they were
still living happily and peacefully on their home planet didn't seem very likely. But
we didn't know they would decide to kick the bucket in the middle of a season. It's
all our worst fears come true."
Herb was numb. "What happened?"
"Damn star blew up. They had forty-one hours warning before the radiation baked
their planet to a cinder."
Herb stood up. All he could think about were rooftop gardens. Squat beautiful
trees. The Kabuki sky, so much closer to the center of the galaxy, alive with color
as the light of a billion stars spun its way through the clouds. The Kabuki had been
Herb's road map, his reference point for the way life should be. And now they
were gone. Worse than that, they had been gone for thousands, perhaps millions of
years. Like the voices on a laugh track, they were all dead; only their ghosts
"I don't understand," Herb said. "Their technology wasn't that different from ours.
Wouldn't they have had some kind of warning?"
"If it was their own star, sure. It wasn't. Not even the next star over. They were --"
"-- closer to the center of the galaxy," Herb said.
"Well, there you go," Shark-Man said. "God decides to take out his golf clubs and
smack a world out of existence, and a whole genre goes under. And consequently,
your golden contract turns to mud."
Herb knew, rationally, that he should be upset about his contract. It's not like he
could do anything for the Kabuki. And a career doing Mato's roles wasn't worth
much if there were no more shows coming in. But when Herb could just look up
and see the ocean of candles on the screen behind Shark-Man, each light
representing a being with a mind and a soul who desperately did not want to die --
Herb's contract was like a far-off dream, without substance or relevance.
"We've got half of the first season of 'We Family,'" Shark-Man said. "And we've
been tossing around ideas about how to market it. And this is where you can help
us: We want to dub and distribute the candlelight vigil."
Herb looked at the screen behind Shark-Man. Mato was leaning on the podium.
His face was resolute, but his eyes were full of tears. The crowd had erupted into a
chorus of sobs. Children clung to their mothers. Husbands held their wives against
them, petting their hair.
"Think about it," Shark-Man said. "ETTV is coming to an end. This is Earth's last
chance to tune in. We'll break every record in the damn book. But we can't do it
Mato. Son of the World. Trusted enough by the Kabuki to be the last public voice
they would ever hear. And now Herb -- cowardly Herb who couldn't even call his
teenage daughter -- was supposed to stand in a booth and tell all of Earth that the
creatures they looked at with fascination and affection were gone, that Earth itself
might one day meet a similar fate.
For television ratings.
Herb turned and took a few steps toward the exit.
"The recording is tomorrow," Shark-Man said. "We've pushed the rest of the show
back a few weeks. No rush on that. But we want to start running the ad as soon as
Herb turned around. He felt like fire ants were crawling around in his veins. "I'll
do it," Herb said. "I'll do it, because Mato did it. And when people hear the news, I
want it to be a familiar voice breaking it to them."
"That's admirable," Shark-Man said. "Glad to have you on board."
Shark-Man put his hand out to shake. Herb gritted his teeth and shook it.
Herb spent the evening alone, playing with his new phone and staring at the
unopened script on his coffee table. He thought about Triela. He thought about the
Kabuki. He searched for a reason for what had happened -- to the Kabuki, to his
family, to himself -- that would make it all okay and allow the knot in his stomach
to untie itself long enough for him to sleep. He came up empty-handed.
Herb stood in the recording booth and read through his lines again. His hands were
sweating so badly they had soaked through the pages. Paused on the screen in front
of Herb was Mato, frozen at the podium while a sea of candles stretched out to the
horizon. Herb tried hard not to look at Mato's face. There was too much reality
"Okay, Herb," the director said. "Just another day in the studio, right?"
Herb nodded and tried to smile politely.
"Let's all try to focus and hit these cues, one by one."
After a moment, the video unpaused. Herb heard a series of beeps, his cue, and
opened his mouth to read his lines. Nothing came out.
The director looked nervous and reset the cue. "It's alright, Herb. We'll hit it this
Three more beeps. Herb still couldn't speak. He clamped his eyes shut and
"Herb, let's try jumping in in the middle," the director said. "Page 4, cue 18."
Herb nodded. He tried to keep his mind perfectly blank, but that didn't keep the
surge of emotion from bubbling up inside him. He felt that if he just gave himself
permission, he could cry forever. He hadn't felt like this since --
Since Triela was born. But that had been for a very different reason.
"All right, let's roll," the director said.
Herb found his voice this time.
"And when our end did not come in the war," Herb read, "We thought ourselves
fortunate. And we were right. Even in the face of this new threat, we were right.
Because our effort in the war was rewarded with another twelve years in which to
be ourselves. To walk the face of our planet, to till its soil, to fish its streams, to
look up at its skies."
The video paused, and Herb took a drink of water.
"Nice, Herb," the director said. "Very nice. Let's keep going and get a feel for this
thing. What do you say?"
Herb nodded, but didn't look up from his script. He tried to squint, to dissociate
himself from the words on the page, from what they meant. They were just words
after all, not even in the language they were originally spoken in.
The video unpaused.
"And do not let yourselves be filled with bitterness because those skies have
decided that our time is at an end. Let your remaining hours be a time of dignity,
and of reflection, as you look back on the many blessings our race has been given."
Herb's voice wavered on the word "blessings."
The director gave him a "go ahead" gesture. Three more beeps followed.
"Do not let the time you have left be spoiled by what lingers in your past, or what
looms in your future. Embrace these final hours, side by side with your loved ones,
with your family."
And Herb broke. His voice cracked as tears spattered the script in his hands. But
Herb didn't stop reading. He couldn't.
And as he read, Herb's mind exploded with a thousand memories. First bike rides.
Playing in the sprinkler. Birthday parties. Candles.
"And while our physical legacy ends here, while the matter that makes our bodies
is spread out among the stars, someone will pass by here one day, either man or
god, by craft or wing. And my prayer is this: That they will know we were here.
Because they will feel a stirring in their hearts, and by feeling alone, they will
know that a great race of people once filled this corner of the galaxy with the light
of their love for one another."
Herb paused and looked down at his script. He could barely read it. There was only
one line left, the last line that Mato had spoken to his dying people.
"Go home," Herb read, "and be with your families. Nothing matters more."
The world was spinning, but it was somehow clear. Herb swallowed hard and said,
The video paused.
"What did you say?" the director asked.
"I'm sorry," Herb said. "Can we pick this up tomorrow? I have something I have to
"What?" The director stared at him blankly for a moment. "Herb, I don't need to
tell you what kind of pressure we're under here. The company --"
"-- can be patient," Herb finished for him. "I have something I have to do. If it's a
day late, it's a day late."
"This had better be important, Herb."
"Nothing matters more," Herb said, smiling to himself.
The director was flustered, but agreed -- because working with difficult talent was
easier than rewriting contracts, Herb supposed. Shark-Man wouldn't be thrilled,
but the work would get done. One day was one day, and if that was worth firing
him over, Herb was prepared to take that risk.
Herb thanked the director politely and stepped outside into the waiting room. He
brought out his new phone, still unfamiliar in his hands, and pulled up Triela's
number. Instead of the picture with the party hat, there was a default
human-shaped, blue gradient. He missed the old photo. He would replace it when
he got home. Maybe he would even take a new one today, if all went well.
Herb tapped the word "text" next to the picture.
"Triela," he typed. "I'm coming."
He felt lighter just saying it. Deciding it.
He added, as an afterthought, "Where are you?"
Triela and Rebecca had moved again a few months back, and Herb had never been
to the new place. In fact, he wasn't sure when he had last seen them in person. Six
months ago? Eight?
He paced back and forth, over to the palm tree in the corner and back to the
bamboo table, waiting for the phone to chime. When it finally did, he almost
dropped it. He opened the text and read it, squatting on his hunkers like a cowboy
hunting for a trail.
"1111 E. Conch Ave." the text said. There was a zip code, then something that
looked like an apartment number. "6G."
Herb walked briskly toward the exit, his pace quickening until a walk could no
longer sustain it. When he reached the double doors, he broke into a run. Then he
was on the 5, following the translucent arrows overlaid on his windshield.
The building Herb pulled up to wasn't an apartment complex. It was a hospital.
He walked through the automatic doors in a daze, going over and over the address
in his head until he came to the elevators and a sign displaying room numbers for
the first floor.
"1A-1M" was printed next to an arrow pointing left. "1N-1Z" and an arrow
"6G," Herb said out loud to himself.
He reached out and pressed the elevator button going up. When the doors opened,
Herb boarded the elevator and pressed the button for the sixth floor. A very young,
very pregnant woman squeezed through the doors at the last minute, smiling
She's going to floor six, Herb thought with odd certainty. Triela is up there right
now in 6G getting a sonogram. She's pregnant. Triela is pregnant.
Herb was so certain of this that he almost told the young lady she had pressed the
wrong button when she selected the "4" instead of the "6."
The elevator hummed its way to the fourth floor. The doors opened on a sign that
said, "OB-GYN" followed by the names of several doctors and signs pointing in
various directions. The young, pregnant girl exited with the same polite smile, the
doors shut, and Herb was alone again.
Herb didn't have time to process what this meant. If she wasn't pregnant --
The elevator dragged him mercilessly up another two floors. He wanted to push the
stop button, to slow down, to face the wall, wait for the doors to close, and go back
to the car. Instead, he stood frozen as the white "6" above the door lit up and the
elevator doors opened on another sign. The words seemed to glare at him, like
sunlight on eyes used to the dark:
Then in smaller text, "Chemotherapy, Proton Therapy, Hormone Therapy, Gene
Therapy, PTD --" The list went on, like whispers.
Near the bottom, Herb found "6A-6M," with an arrow pointing left. Numbly, he
His whole life, Herb had been scared of one thing or another -- failure, intimacy,
of not measuring up somehow. But this was something else. This was a whole
other universe of scared. For a moment, Herb wasn't sure his legs would carry him
down the hall. But he could see her door. 6G. It was real. All of this was really
happening. Leave your feelings out of it, a voice in his mind told him. Be present,
but selfless. Be what she needs, not how you feel.
It was Herb's voice, but it wasn't. It was slightly lower, stronger, and spoke with
an easy confidence that Herb had come to know well. It was Mato's voice, the
voice of his memory, of hundreds of recording sessions that Herb had done.
"I'm so scared," Herb whispered.
So was I, the voice said. More than you can know. Act brave, and you will be
Then the door was there, and it was open. Rebecca was sitting in a chair, reading a
magazine and looking years older than the last time he had seen her. When she saw
him, she stood, hands balled up into fists, arms held soldier straight. Until the
moment she hugged him, Herb had been certain she was about to hit him. Then she
was crying, digging her fingers into his coat and sobbing. Herb rubbed her back,
and turned to look at the hospital bed.
Triela was asleep, clutching her phone to her chest. She still had her hair, but it was
matted and thin, and the skin around her eyes was the color of bruises. Tubes were
everywhere. One bright, rainbow toe-sock stuck out from under the white hospital
sheet, the only color in the room.
"Is she going to be okay?" Herb asked, still trying to shake the feeling he was in
the recording studio, doing a voice for some nonspecific, heartbroken shit of a
Rebecca answered his question with a chorus of sobs, burying her head in his chest
and shaking her head, no, no, no.
Herb felt like sliding down the wall into a ball, but that sense of Mato's presence
kept him standing.
Slowly, Rebecca let go of him. She held up her hands in a delicately apologetic
gesture, eyes looking to the sides, mouthing "I'm sorry," but not making any
"Why didn't she tell me?" Herb said.
For the first time, Rebecca's dark features grew hard.
Herb knew the answer already. "Because if I didn't come, that would mean I didn't
love her at all. And if I did, she would always be suspicious, like I had done it
because I had to."
Herb walked over to the bedside and took Triela's hand, the one not holding the
phone. It felt almost weightless.
"Cancer?" Herb asked, because he needed to hear it confirmed.
"Where?" he asked. Even as it came out, Herb wondered why he hadn't asked,
"The long bones of her arms and legs," Rebecca said. "The x-rays look like
somebody took a melon-baller to them."
Herb shut his eyes. Eighty-five percent of cancers were easily cured these days, but
Triela had fallen in the deadly fifteen.
Herb waited a long time to ask the question on his mind, the one question that still
mattered. Act brave, Mato had told him. If there was one thing Herb could do, it
was act. So he pretended he was brave enough to ask the question, and then asked
"How long does she have?"
"Three to six months," Rebecca said.
Herb hesitated, then nodded. For a moment, he had half expected her to say,
"Forty-one hours," the amount of time the Kabuki had had before the end, to make
themselves ready to die, to go home, and be with their families. Herb thought three
months wasn't long enough. Six wasn't long enough. Hell, one hundred years
wasn't long enough.
Herb looked down at Triela and thought, There's nowhere for her to go, nowhere
she can go to get away from this.
Three to six months, with the end looming like a storm cloud.
Herb leaned down and kissed Triela's hand. As long as she was here, he would be
here with her. Because he had to, and he wanted to. Because nothing mattered
Triela stirred, eyes opening the tiniest bit, darting around, then closing again. Herb
felt her fingers close around his, and for the first time since walking through the
door to room 6G of the cancer center, Herb began to cry.
Later that week, when the recording was done, Herb watched the airing of the
candlelight vigil in Triela's hospital room with his family around him. Triela said
little, but watched the final seconds of the Kabuki broadcast with scarcely a blink,
as blindingly beautiful auroras lit up the sky over the empty streets of the Kabuki
city square. When the cameras went to static, May and Rebecca cried from their
chairs in the corner. Triela looked up at Herb and simply nodded. There was
strength in that nod that Herb hadn't seen in her before, strength and understanding
and acceptance. And gratitude, Herb thought. When she smiled at him, even
though the expression was wan and thin, he smiled back.
On the TV, announcers were speaking over a shot from a telescope showing a
purplish star that outshone all the others. It was the supernova that had killed the
Kabuki so many, many years before, and the light -- like the television shows --
was just now reaching earth.
In a day or two, the remaining light from the star would fade forever, but for now,
Herb and Triela could share it, together.