“The Parts of Us that Remember”
by Andrew Giffin
It was two hours before the execution, and Frida gazed beyond the walls of the colony. The trees grew wild and thick, deep red bark and trunks that bent and twisted upwards like an umbrella turned inside out. A flock of bright green birds broke through the hairy purple leaves and wheeled away deeper into the jungle, silhouetted against an eternally setting sun. She closed her eyes and inhaled.
The warm air blew through her salt and pepper hair, and she pulled it back into a ponytail. She stood on the balcony of the late mayor’s estate, listening to her deputy sheriff drone on about the details of the impending execution.
“Folks are bound to be all manner of upset, no matter which side they’re on, so to ease the tension I figure we deputize some of the miners, let them do crowd control till that son of a bitch is hanging. What do you think, Sheriff?” Willard asked.
Frida opened her eyes, letting the glow of orange light seep in. “You ever heard of golden hour, Willard?” She turned to face the young man.
His chubby face, like a baby’s, wore a perplexed expression. “Uh… I’m coming up blank, Sheriff.”
“It doesn’t really mean much here. But back home, Earth, I mean, golden hour’s what we’d call the last hour of the day, as the sun would begin to set. It would cast the world in a golden light, the last rays of the sun reaching out and making everything magic. I used to love it. I feel like all my memories of childhood take place in that light.” She stared beyond Willard as she spoke to him.
Willard didn’t say anything.
She exhaled. “I can remember running around on a summer afternoon, trying to soak up every last minute of the day; you’d barely notice the sun had been setting till the clouds were burning with reds and purples. Beautiful.” She turned back towards the trees and shook her head.
“Now it’s the only goddamn thing I ever see. You know I dream in this light? I’ll wake up in the night with orange streaming in through the blinds, and I can’t tell if I’m awake or dreaming.”
Willard coughed. “Uh, right. Anyways…” His voice trailed off.
“Yes, Willard, that all sounds great. You’ve done a good job. You’ll make a fine sheriff.” She turned to see Willard running his hand through the hair on the back of his head.
“Aw hell, Frida, you know I’m not… look, everybody knows you’re the boss, I’m not trying to take anything away from you.” He winced.
Frida walked over and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get out of a dead man’s house,” she said, and turned to leave the balcony.
Willard followed closely behind her. “The mayor’s estate will be yours soon enough. You’re a shoo-in. People ’round here agree you were practically doing his job for him.” His voice followed Frida as they made their way to the entrance of the house.
She thought about their tidally-locked world. One side of the planet forever faced its star, a wasteland blasted dry from billions of years of sunlight. The other side faced away, an eternal, freezing cold night.
A thin, volatile ecosystem stretched around the center of the planet like the rings of a gas giant, a rain forest whose every creature evolved in the dying light of afternoon. Their colony sat on this middle ground, the sun always about to set.
They stopped at the door. Frida glanced back at the way they had come, at all the discarded luxuries the mayor had hoarded up here, bought with the labor of the miners. A well-stocked bar of aged alcohol, small jars of rare spices, furs from animals Frida had never seen before.
Any of these could have paid for new ventilation systems in the insulated transports, repairs to the temperature control in the miners’ suits, updated water filtration for the miners’ living quarters. Now they gathered dust.
“I’m just saying being elected mayor’s nothing to sneeze at, is all,” Willard said.
“You know what else I miss? The stars. I’m not sure if you understand but, God, do I miss the stars,” Frida said.
Willard furrowed his brow. “Are you feeling okay, Sheriff?”
Frida smiled. “I’m fine, Willard, forget I said anything.” She turned to exit the house and walked down the steep hill of the estate, her shadow trailing behind her.
“If you wanna see the stars, all you gotta do is hitch a ride with the miners sometime. They get more of their fair share, I’m sure.” Willard followed Frida to the main road of the colony. They stopped when they reached the parked brown mule, its four tires packed with dirt.
Frida reached into her pocket and handed the keys to Willard. “Go ahead and take the mule back into town, round up everyone that wants to help, okay? I’ll meet you in the square when you’re finished.”
Willard climbed into the vehicle. “What about you, Sheriff?”
“I think I’m gonna walk, clear my head.”
Willard shrugged, putting the keys in the ignition. The engine started with a tired groan. The mule bounced down the road, kicking up a small cloud as it moved towards town. She took a moment to take in the mineral scent of the dirt, an Earth smell it seemed to her, and walked after it.
The smell of dirt got her thinking about those summer afternoons on Earth, so much of her childhood spent outdoors. At her grandparent’s rural Virginia farmhouse, she wouldn’t go back inside until long after the fireflies appeared. She would lie down in the fields and stare up at the night sky in wonder.
Deep in her core, she had always known she was meant to go to the stars. The colonization program was not yet a reality then, but somehow she had known. She considered the stars part of her identity.
All her life she dreamed of the future. She spent hours staring at the covers of the old tattered books on her father’s shelf, printed on actual paper. Shiny metal utopias towering over alien landscapes, sleek spacecraft descending through the atmosphere from the night sky. She would lie awake and imagine she was the pilot of one of those ships, looking down over an empty planet of her own discovery.
That was over two hundred years ago. She didn’t look a day over fifty, but inside she was a tired old woman.
The fourth generation of colonists had already been born by the time Frida’s ship arrived, entrenched in their daily lives. She had been outpaced by newer technology, all invented while she was asleep in her stasis pod.
She had been so nervous when the shuttle had touched down. She was like a woman coming out of a coma, about to meet the grandchildren she never knew she had. It had seemed like only a few moments asleep, though it had actually been years. Whatever she had expected after her time away, it certainly hadn’t been this.
Most of the colony’s population worked in the mines. The planet was rich in minerals and precious metals, and the miners took insulated transports to the night side of the planet, bringing their haul back to be shipped off to civilization every two months.
The day side of the planet was too hot to mine, and they had to contend with the wildlife in the habitable zone. The night side of the planet was the most cost-effective.
It was a job each of them inherited from the first wave of inhabitants. Those who were lucky in their lineage inherited other jobs. Those that worked in the town sometimes chose a different career from the one their parents had taught them. The children of the miners were not among those select few. The mayor made sure of that.
The colony was divided neatly across that line. There were miners and then there was everyone else. Frida used to see the future as a promise. Now she knew better.
Frida entered the town, turning off the road once she reached the sheriff’s office towards the holding cells in the back. She walked through the door, where she found one of her officers leaning back in her chair. She sat up upon Frida’s entrance.
“Evening, Clara. I’d like to speak with the prisoner,” she said, waiting for her to open the holding area.
Clara started. “Sheriff, he’s due to be executed in less than two hours!”
“This won’t take long.”
Clara stood, fumbling with the keys as she approached the door, her blonde hair tied up in a short ponytail. “I think the preacher’s in there with him now.” She unlocked the door.
“Thank you, Clara. I’ll send him out.” Frida walked past her and into the corridor of cells.
Clara followed as they approached the only one that was occupied.
“Open it up for me, would you?” Frida nodded at the door.
Clara unlocked it and stepped back, her face unsure.
Frida pulled it open. She stepped into the cell, where the preacher read a passage from the Bible to a man handcuffed to a small table.
They both glanced up, the preacher in surprise, the man in curiosity.
“Sheriff, hello. I was getting ready for the last rites,” the preacher said. He closed the Bible and held it to his chest.
“I wonder if you wouldn’t mind giving us a moment to talk?” she asked.
The preacher raised his eyebrows, glancing down at the handcuffed man.
“Of course,” he said, and walked out of the room.
Frida took a seat across the table as Clara closed the door of the cell. She stared at the man, his long hair running past his unshaven face.
After a moment of silence, the man, Eric, coughed. “Well, what’s on your mind, Sheriff? I haven’t got all day.” A smile crept into the corners of his mouth.
Now the smile erupted. “Is that it? You want to hear that again? I told you everything the night you arrested me. Go read the report. Hell, go read the transcript of the trial if you forgot, Sheriff.” Anger in his voice betrayed the amusement on his face.
“I remember what you said in the report, what you told the judge.”
Eric shrugged. “And?”
“And there isn’t a man or woman working in those mines who didn’t have the same feelings towards the mayor, the same motive. The only difference is none of them pulled the trigger. So what changed?”
He leaned back in his chair, considering for a moment. “Do you know Shelly Abrams? She works the mines, been with her since we were fifteen.”
Frida nodded. “She gave birth recently, if I’m not mistaken. A little girl.”
“My daughter’s why I did it, Sheriff. I wanted a better future for my little girl. I didn’t want her to have to work the mines. I wanted her to have a choice. She would never get that opportunity with someone like him in charge.”
Frida looked at him, washed in golden light streaming in through the window set high in the wall. He didn’t look a day over twenty-five.
“How old are you, son?”
Eric stiffened, preparing for some trap to be sprung. “Twenty-two.”
Frida nodded. “How old do you think I am?”
He studied her up and down. “I’m not sure, Sheriff, sixty?”
Frida laughed. “I was born on Earth, did you know that?”
Eric gave a look of surprise. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? The popsicles?” he said, and Frida nodded.
There were only a few others in the colony that had been frozen with her. The rest had been diverted to other colonies better able to accommodate extra numbers. The Federal Navy vessel that found them didn’t even bother waking them up from stasis to let them know.
“I’m two hundred fifty-five years old. I volunteered to be a colonist.”
The man gaped. “You volunteered for this?” he asked.
“We all did, back then. We were going to be the first wave of colonists, the future come at last. Such optimists! Imagine my surprise when I woke up to discover we had been lapped,” she said.
Eric nodded. “They figured out how to get here faster.”
“They only took us so far, considering when I woke up two hundred years later it was on a former penal colony. Space colonization had gone from a promise to a threat.”
Eric looked down. “We may not be classed as a penal colony anymore, not since my father was a kid, but we’re still just as much prisoners. There’s a line drawn in the sand between us and them. They all like it that way. Makes them feel safe.” Eric laughed despite the expression on his face.
“It’s a caste system, really. My great-grandmother got sent here for trying to rob a bank, killed two people in the process. And now here I am.” He held up his hands as high as he could to indicate the cuffs around his wrists. “It runs in the family, I guess.” He stared up at the sky visible in the window.
“I tell you one thing, the future is not what they told us it would be,” Frida said.
“What did they tell you it would be?”
Frida thought a moment. “I’m not sure exactly. Bright. Shiny. I got on that ship expecting one thing and got off to something else. Seems I forgot.”
“Forgot what, Sheriff?”
“Who we are. Where we’ve come from. We’re still monkeys. You can put us in a spaceship and send us across the galaxy, but we’re still animals. We’re a hell of a ways away from being able to change that.
“I tell you what son, all my life I thought the stars were our future, the start of something better. I wanted to be at the front of it, to be a part of history. Then I got here and it was still just beyond my grasp.” She glanced down at the table.
“The people here don’t think of the stars as our future. They either stay in town and don’t ever see them, or they go out to the mines and can’t spare a glance upwards. Too dangerous to take your eyes off your work,” he said.
Frida sighed. “I let myself give up a little more, year after year. I lost hope. It’s fitting that I never see the stars anymore.”
They stared at each other. A moment of silence passed.
“Tell me, son, do you think it was worth it, what you did? Do you think it will change anything?”
He looked at Frida, and she saw something in the young man’s face that said he did not want to die.
“You tell me, Sheriff. You get to be in charge now.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Yeah, I suppose there’s gonna be some changes for the better around here. I’m going to try, anyway.”
Eric nodded, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. For the first time since entering his cell, he looked vulnerable. “Uh, Sheriff, listen…I don’t suppose…” He stopped and sighed. “Sorry, this isn’t easy. I don’t suppose you’d consider giving me a pardon?” He stared at the table instead of meeting Frida’s eye.
Frida reached across the table and took one of his cuffed hands in hers. “Eric, I wish with all my heart that the answer to that question could be ‘yes,’ for your little girl’s sake if nothing else. I’m sorry that you have to be the price of change. But you killed a man, son. There has to be consequences; otherwise what’s truly changed? Cold blooded murder has no place in the world you want for your daughter. I’m sorry.” Frida stood, tears filling her eyes. She turned and headed for the door.
“Why are you crying, Sheriff? You’re the one that gets to live,” Eric called after her.
Frida turned back before exiting the cell. “That’s just it, son.” The tears spilled out and ran down her cheeks. She walked down the corridor and out into the orange light.
Frida wasn’t there for the execution. Willard later told her he waited for as long as he could. The crowd began to gather and grow restless, so he decided to proceed without her. He had figured by this time next week he would be sheriff.
As the trap door fell away from the young man’s feet, the rope snapping tight with the weight of his body, Frida drove one of the insulated mining transports out of the front gates around their town.
The rest of the colony watched as the man hanged, and Shelly Abrams covered the eyes of her baby girl.
Frida decided that, for the first time in years, she was going to gaze at the stars.
Andrew Griffin is a high-school English teacher in Richmond, Va. He lives with his wife and two daughters. He is an autistic author who writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His other published works can be found in Cosmic Horror Monthly, The Dread Machine, and the upcoming fall issue of Planet Scumm, but this was his first story sale.