Stars faded out as the warm glow of the sun rolled up over the horizon. Winona hated to see them go. For one thing, the morning sun lit up the fields that ran from the house where she stood to the distant line of the horizon. The solid monotony had always seemed emptier to her than space, with all its mysteries and dangers, and now the vast expanses of the Iowa plains amplified the emptiness that stretched and roared inside her.
Though she’d been born here, she’d never loved this place the way George had. Despite growing up in the claustrophobically-dense cities of the European coast, he’d adored the farm from the first time Winona had brought him here to meet her father. He’d sunk himself into the rich Iowa soil like a healthy plant.
Winona turned her face up to the sky to catch a last glimpse of FC14226, the distant star closest to that damned black hole, whose mass had likely drawn the wreckage of the Kelvin into orbit over the years: a burning light marking George’s grave. She watched until sunlight erased the star from view. Then she slipped through the screen door back into the kitchen to put something together for breakfast.
“Close your eyes,” George said.
Winona waved a hand at the twilight-dim yard. “It’s dark. Do I really need to close my eyes?”
“You have excellent night vision. I’ve seen you navigate your way through an obstacle course in a blacked-out training gym. Go on,” George said with a stern look. “Close your eyes.”
“Fine.” Winona let her eyes drift shut, just barely.
George stepped up behind her and pressed his hand over her eyes. “No peeking.”
“Okay,” she laughed. She could easily picture the mock serious expression on his face, a parody of the one he used on the bridge. He led her by the arm without removing his hand from his eyes. Beneath her bare feet, Winona felt the thick grass of the backyard gave way to the packed earth of one of the trails that crisscrossed the property. “Should I have put on hiking boots for this?”
“No, trust me.” He steered her left, down a bend in the trail, and then she lost track of the direction entirely.
“So help me, George Kirk, if you make me walk across gravel-- ”
“Trust me, I said. Anyway, we’re almost there.”
The dirt gave way to grass again. George tugged at her elbow to stop her. “Okay.” He let his hand drop away from her face. “Open your eyes.”
Winona did. After total darkness, the pale light of the stars and a sliver of moon shone impossibly bright. A blanket lay spread across the grass in front of her, just at the edge of a bluff that overlooked the creek. A bottle of wine stood in an ice-filled metal bucket she’d last seen in the barn. One of her grandmother’s woven baskets, no doubt scavenged from a back corner of the pantry, sat beside it, covered with a white tea towel.
“It’s a starlight picnic,” George said. He turned his face up to the night sky. “When we’re up there together, and we can’t don’t have the land or the sun, we still always have starlight. Even if it means staring at a viewscreen together and imagining we’re under the Iowa sky.”
She tilted her head back to see what he saw, and marveled at the field of stars. “It’s beautiful.”
“We’ll be back here before you know it.” George took her hands, bringing her focus back down to Earth.
“It’s not my first tour of duty, mister,” she said, but she kissed him anyway.
When she was done kissing him, George drew their linked hands up between them, and rubbed his thumb against the ring on Winona’s left hand. “It’s my first tour of duty as a husband,” he said. “I want to do it right. I don’t want to leave all this behind us when we go. We’ll take it with us. You and me together, we’ll bring home with us.”
By the time Winona found time to step out on the back porch again, just after lunch, the sun seemed to have paused directly over the yard, as if time was conspiring against her. Corn stood tall in the surrounding fields, stalks waving gently in the languid July breeze.
The wholesomeness of the scene made Winona unaccountably weary.
She leaned her forehead against the rough wood column that held up the roof of the porch, and closed her eyes against the bright blue Iowa sky. An afternoon’s worth of tasks crowded in at the corners of her mind: another freelance article for a scientific journal, an hour on the com line with a physicist in Omaha who wanted a consult, screens and screens of data from the latest simulation she’d been hired to study. All of it felt as empty as the cloudless sky.
Winona turned quickly, looking for danger, but saw only Sam squinting at her from the shade of the doorway. He stood shielding himself half behind the screen door. “Jim’s doing it again,” he said.
Winona curled her fingers around the porch railing, and tried to take a deep breath. She only succeeded in clenching her jaw. “Just leave him alone.”
“It’s annoying,” Sam said, leaning further out of the house. “Every time he’s asleep.”
“Sam. Leave him alone. Don’t you have better things to do?” Winona drifted over to the door and tousled a hand through Sam’s straw-coarse hair. “Go play out front. Or go up to your room.”
“Fine.” At least he waited until he’d half turned away to roll his eyes. He ducked inside and let the door slam behind him.
After a minute, Winona heard the front door slam as well, and then the sound of a dirt bike speeding off over the gravel. She stood near the screen door for a moment, listening, but could hear only the thick buzz of cicadas. No need to go inside, then, and nothing she could do anyway, if she did.
Winona pushed herself away from the house, like pushing off an obstacle in zero gravity. She felt weightless, untethered as she drifted down the porch stairs. Then she curled her toes into the thick grass, anchored again.
Winona lay on her back on a blanket in the backyard, watching Sam, who’d worn himself out in the afternoon heat, sleep curled up in his little red wagon. George lay beside her on the blanket, propped up on one elbow, smoothing his hand back and forth across her belly, where she hadn’t yet begun to show.
“Do you think he’ll mind being born in space?” George asked.
Winona shook her head. “He’ll be with us. His big brother will be jealous.”
“Nah. Sam likes the farm too much to want to be stuck on a spaceship for a year.” George snuck a glance at their sleeping firstborn, quickly, as if he was afraid too much direct attention would wake him. “We’re doing the right thing, leaving him behind this time.”
“Yes.” She dropped her steady hand atop George’s restless one. “Just think of how much he’ll grow.”
“He’ll be so proud of all the marvelous discoveries his mommy made during the tour.”
“And of the cool-headed leadership his father displayed during the inevitable crises that pop up on so-called routine exploratory missions.”
“Sam will be fine.” George dropped a kiss onto Winona’s belly. “We’ll bring him back a baby brother and a million great new bedtime stories.”
Winona turned to see her youngest son standing beside her, serious blue eyes staring up at her, bright in the afternoon sunshine.
“Aren’t you supposed to be taking a nap?”
Jim shook his head. “I tried. It was too quiet.”
Winona looked closely at Jim’s face, looking for the evidence of a lie; her son already gotten too good at hiding his true thoughts. “Your brother said you were crying again. Did you have a nightmare?”
“Tattletale,” Jim muttered. He walked back to the porch steps, flung himself down on them, and crossed his arms emphatically across his chest.
Winona made her way back across the yard to sit on the steps next to Jim. “Tell me.”
“Don’t want to,” he said, and Winona saw George in the stubborn set of his chin.
“Alright. If you decide to tell me what you dreamed about, I’d tell you a dream of mine.” Winona stretched her legs out and tipped her head back, letting the sun pin her in place with its heat, so different from the chill of space, the cold purity of recycled air.
“Okay.” Jim nudged his knee against hers.
Winona opened her eyes, and raised a hand to shield them against the light so she could see Jim’s serious face, determined as if he faced a firing squad. “Okay,” she said.
“I woke up in my room,” Jim said. “And I couldn’t hear anything. There wasn’t a dog or a car or anything. So I got up and looked around the house. And Sam wasn’t in his room, and you weren’t in your room, and you weren’t anywhere. So I went outside to look for you, and it was dark, but there weren’t any stars or moon because the clouds were covering them up. The clouds had lighting all inside of them, but they didn’t make any noise, they just flashed. And I thought because there was lightning, it was going to rain, but maybe you and Sam had gone outside somewhere, so I tried to yell for you.”
“And what happened?”Winona asked, in a voice gone inexplicably hoarse.
“I couldn’t hear it. I mean, I wasn’t deaf or anything, but the darkness and the storm were drinking up all the sound. And I remembered Sam told me that in outer space you can’t hear anything, because it’s a vacuum, and even screaming you can’t hear. So I thought we must be in space. And when I turned back to look at the house, I couldn’t see the yard or anything, just blackness all around, because it was outer space.”
They sat silently together for a moment, listening to birds sing and cicadas chirp in the fading light of the afternoon.
“I wasn’t scared though,” Jim said eventually. “I’m not scared of space like Sam says I am.”
“Okay,” Winona said. She thought about it for a moment, the lightning storm in space, but she couldn’t muster fear. She’d never quite discovered how to be afraid of the stars.
“What did you dream about?” Jim broke in.
Winona closed her eyes to picture it. “Last night I dreamed I was on a ship.”
“Was it the Kelvin?”
“No.” Her eyes opened again and darted to Jim, who looked to be holding growing alarm beneath an attempt at a calm façade. “Not that one. It was just a ship,” she said, and Jim nodded. “I’d open a door to go somewhere, and the door would lead to the backyard here, just a big sunny plain. So I’d close that door, and I’d try another one. I had orders to get somewhere, somewhere important. And the next door would be the same thing: this porch, with the swing over on the right, and then corn as far as the eye could see.”
“They don’t grow corn on spaceships. They use replicators,” Jim said authoritatively.
“Yes.” She found herself wearing a weak smile. “So I knew something was wrong. No matter what I tried to do on the ship, I couldn’t get away from the farm.”
“Don’t you like the farm?” Jim frowned.
“There are things about it I like. Not everything. Do you like the farm?”
“Yes.” Jim put his hand on the worn wood of the porch step, and grips the edge. “Sam says it would be better to live on a spaceship like you and Dad did, but I think he’s only saying that because he’s jealous that you went up into space when he was little and he didn’t get to go.”
“Living on a spaceship’s not that much fun.” Winona stood up and brushed the inevitable dirt from the stairs off her pants. “For one thing, there’s no fresh sweet corn on a spaceship. You want to help me shuck?”
Jim nodded, and scrambled up the steps to follow her into the house.
George crept up behind Winona, and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Should we wake him up?” he whispered.
Winona shook her head. In the grey pre-dawn light, Sam shifted under the covers, but didn’t open his eyes. “Let him sleep. We said all we needed to say last night.”
Winona turned in George’s arms. She reached behind her to pull Sam’s door gently shut, and frowned up at George. “Didn’t we?”
“I forgot to say how much I love you,” George said. “And how lucky we are to have a home here. Thank you.”
“I didn’t do anything except get born in Iowa.”
“Nope. You have enough home inside you to carry some with us, and leave some here for Sam.”
“I think the farm’s doing most of the work. Come on, we’ll miss the shuttle.”
“Hey.” George caught her hand in his. He pulled it to his mouth and kissed it. “You sure you’re okay with going on another mission?”
“No place I’d rather be.”
Hours later, after a grubby and hungry Sam had wandered back, after the three of them had devoured a dozen ears of sweet corn between, after the boys had been tucked into bed, after they’d each woken once and then shooed back to their rooms, Winona locked herself in her study.
The dark outside the farmhouse windows seemed alive and warm, thicker somehow than the darkness of space. The sun had set hours ago, but it was still not too late in San Francisco. Winona called up the comm link and punched in a code that still came easily to mind, even after years of disuse.
When the link connected, a familiar face appeared, brow creased in worry. “Winona? What’s wrong?”
“Everything’s fine. It’s official business.”
Christopher Pike straightened up, then, but the worry lines didn’t go away. “Go ahead,” he said.
“I’d like to be assigned active duty status.”
“Are--.” He stopped himself, knowing well enough that she wouldn’t have called if she wasn’t sure. “Yes, Lieutenant. We’ll get the paperwork started.”
After she ended the call, Winona grabbed a blanket from the closet, wrapped it around herself, and went to sit out on the back porch steps. As she watched the starlight drift across the endless rows of corn, she closed her eyes and tried to conjure that feeling of home she should be carrying inside her. She couldn’t find it.
Winona opened her eyes, glad to see the stars had returned, constant and comforting, and more of a home to her than the farm could ever be. From the upstairs window, she heard the beginnings of a stifled sob. She stood up, and told her feet she’d let them carry her inside soon enough. Jim would grow out of his fear; he was trying to already. Sam would run his anger out on the fields and the hills, not straying beyond the boundaries of the farm. This place, she knew, would hold her family safe, as space would not. But her home, now, was elsewhere.