Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Go Home, And Be With Your Families
    by Steven R. Stewart

Go Home, And Be With Your Families
Artwork by Anna Repp

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 territory.

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 know."

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."

Beep.

"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.

"Message deleted." 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 asleep.

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 race.

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 love.

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 your time."

"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 sexiness."

"Uh, thanks."

"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 was extra.

"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 somewhere."

"I think that's why you got into the game in the first place," Pat said. "You thrive on instability."

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 4-D TV?"

"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 good again."

"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?"

"Sure."

"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!"

"Why?"

"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 miserable."

"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 afternoon.

"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 minutes.

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 clumps.

"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 remained.

"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 without you."

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 possible."

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 there.

"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 time."

Three more beeps. Herb still couldn't speak. He clamped his eyes shut and reopened them.

"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, "Triela."

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 do."

"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 pointing right.

"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 politely.

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:

"CANCER CENTER."

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 followed it.

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 brave.

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 father.

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 sound.

"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.

Rebecca nodded.

"Where?" he asked. Even as it came out, Herb wondered why he hadn't asked, "What kind?"

"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 it.

"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 more.

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.

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i21&article=_003

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