Leighgendary Shorts: The Dark Age by Jason Gurley

Welcome to the sixth edition of Leighgendary Shorts.

This week we will be discussing The Dark Age by Jason Gurley.

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On the day she was born, he left for the stars.

He watches her grow up on screens. Misses her first words. Misses her first steps. She’s never kissed his scratchy cheek, or fallen asleep on his shoulder. He’s never wiped away her tears, or sung her to sleep.

Now she’s a toddler, and he’s about to enter hibernation sleep — and when he wakes nearly 150 years in the future, his family will be gone.

This is a short story for every father who never wants his daughter to grow up.

Jason Gurley was one of the first indie authors that astonished me.  Indie authors aren’t supposed to be this good are they?  I had always thought indie authors wrote stories that were full of errors and weak story lines  and weak characters.  Gurley’s stories grabbed me from day one and they have continued to hold my interest to date.  He is one of the first indie authors I will tell people about.  I love how a lot of his short stories leave things open to the reader.  Indie authors aren’t supposed to do that.

I hope you had a great time reading this story. How about we jump right into it?

***SPOILERS BELOW***

The story starts out with our main character and he is at the birth of his first child.  It is a moment that he will never forget.  It is a moment that I am sure every father remembers.  After he helps to delivery the baby he hands her to his wife.  The baby clings to the mom, Frannie, and he doesn’t want to look away, but he sees something out of the corner of his eye.  He looks over, even though he wishes he hadn’t.  The man wiggles his finger and nods at the main character.  He looks down at his wife and the tears start to form.  He can feel the pain in his chest.  He kisses his wife and then nuzzles his new born baby, Elle.  He follows the man and they leave the hospital.

Fast forward to the present.  The main character is in space and he is communicating with Frannie and Elle via webcam.  Elle is older, but not much.  She really isn’t speaking, just gibberish.  She puts her fingers over the camera and he tells her that she is silly.  That makes Elle babble and say “a-da.”  Frannie tells him that they have been working on it that week, even though the d sound is hard.  This makes him cry because he knows she means to say dada.  Of course, seeing him cry on the screen makes Elle laugh harder and she ends up spitting up her breakfast.  Frannie goes to clean her up.

As he waits for Elle and Frannie to come back on screen, Sarah comes into the room.  She realizes that he is on a call with his family and she apologizes.  He tells her it is ok, Elle spit up so it is a commercial break.  He asks if what she needs but then Frannie comes back on.  Sarah says hi and apologizes for coming in during his conversation.  She floats out of the room and shuts the door.  Frannie laughs about the whole thing and he tells her he needs to get off, his time is up anyways.  He tells Frannie to kiss Elle for him.  She does and he says love.  Elle babbles back, “Love love.”  The screen then goes dark.  He turns the lights off in the room and cries.  Since they are in space the tears stick to his face, once he is done crying he wipes the tears up and turns the lights back on and gets to work.

We learn that he signed up for this space program long before he met Frannie.  She asks if he would sign up again if they had already been married and he tells her no, but it is a lie.  Once Elle is born he changes his mind, Frannie can see it in his eyes.  He wonders what it would be like to hold Elle, to have her hair tickle his face as she sleeps.  But this is what he signed up for.  Him and the team are supposed to find out what is out there.  This is what he signed up for though, he hates his younger self every day.

Who else is on the crew?  Sarah is a scientist, Mikael is the technician, Stefan and Heidi are the pilots (Heidi is also the shrink), the main character is the communications guy, Walter is the physician and nutritionist, and Edith is the researcher.  Walter came up with an idea for the crew while they are on this mission, anybody can sleep with anybody on the crew and no one will get upset and the families back on Earth will never find out.  The main character tells his wife about it on the first call back home and she thinks it is a good idea, he doesn’t though.  He only wants to be with her.  Heidi approaches him a few days later but he couldn’t do it.  He didn’t tell Frannie, though he doesn’t know why.  Frannie tells him that she thinks Sarah is nice.  She is, and he thinks about it sometimes.

The WSA only lets them have two communications a week.  It is something he really looks forward to but he is missing all of Elle’s first: words, solid food, steps.  He cries every time because he doesn’t feel like a parent.  You can really feel his pain of not being there for his daughter growing up.

The big sleep is coming up.  The WSA wants Heidi to talk to the crew about it so they can express their feelings.  They decide to talk about it as a group, though three are not there because they don’t want to talk about it.  They think of it as The Dark Age.  The main character just starts to cry.

His wife is starting to feel alone and there is nothing he can do.  His daughter is currently sick and he is hundreds of thousands of miles away.

The deep sleep is when the crew will be put into a hibernation sleep for one hundred forty four years.  (Now we start to understand his pain even more.)

Frannie asks if she is supposed to be alone for the rest of her life?  He doesn’t know how to answer.  After the call he floats out and Sarah is in the next room.  They talk and she tells him that he will have to let her find someone else, he really isn’t hers anymore and she isn’t his.  The deep sleep is close and when he wakes up his whole family will be dead and gone.

It is time for his last conversation with his family.  Frannie is wearing a sweater that he liked, Elle is wearing a sundress with yellow rain boots.  She shows him her boots.  Then she gets several toys and names each of them for him.  Frannie tries to get Elle to come and tell him she loves him.  He is crying.  Frannie picks up Elle and holds her up to the camera.  She cries and wiggles in protest.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she’s-” that is all he hears.  His time has run up.  It is time for the deep sleep, The Dark Age.

He doesn’t want to sleep.  He wants to just stay awake and die.  The pods they are in are clear and have a screen that is voice activated.  Sarah talks and her message shows up on his screen.  She is trying to help him calm down and realize he is a good person.  He doesn’t think he is, his daughter is going to hate him.  Sarah starts to drift to sleep and he said, “Record a message.”  This is his message:

“Elle, Frannie –
“I hope with all of my heart that this message comes through.  Maybe the WSA will see it and make sure.  I hope so.
“We’re going to sleep now.  It’s about to happen – I already feel woozy.  I’m sorry.  This is my last message and I’m going to sound like a drunk.  I’m sorry, I’m so sorry –
Frannie, my dear, my sweet wife.  I have loved you since I met you.  I wish that I could hold you forever, but I can’t – I have to let you go.  Be happy.  Fill your days with love.  Fill Elle’s.
Elle, sweetheart – I’m going to cry, I’m sorry – Elle, there is nothing – I – oh, god, I’m drifiting.  It’s happening –
Elle – Elle –
“I hold you always
“I am – I am always –
“Elle -“

He falls asleep.

They are all around the table.  They just watched the last message they sent to their families.  He is mad because he doesn’t feel like he said what he should have.  But Stefan didn’t know he could send a message and so he didn’t record one and now his family is dead.

They look down at the table (it is a computer as well) and a message pops up:  2,783 messages retrieved.

These are the messages they have received while in the deep sleep.  A lot of the messages are from the WSA with status updates on major events.  The WSA is gone…so is The United States.  It is like reading an alternate history book or a science fiction story.

The rest of the messages are personal messages for the crew.  “Sarah has dozens from her parents.  Heidi’s boys have recorded hours of video – she is a grandmother.  Each of the crew has countless messages.  Stefan has many, and this seems to cheer him.  I have one.”

I can’t describe it better than Jason so this is how it ends:
It’s a video.
I don’t recognize her at first.  Her blonde hair is brown now, her green eyes steady.  She is outdoors, at a picnic table.  The sky is pink behind her – dawn over the trees.  She’s backlit, partially in rose-colored shadow.  She stares into the camera and opens her mouth once, then twice, as if she isn’t sure where to begin.  A nervous smile, and I see her then:  I see her mother in her upside-down smile, the smile that should by all rights be a frown but isn’t.  I see myself in her eyes.  She is older than I am now.
Elle.
Nine hours of video.
“Daddy,” she says, looking straight into the camera.  Her voice is strong and a little scratchy, like her mother’s.
I remember her wrinkled pink skin, her insignificant weight in my hands.  Her strange smell, her little fish mouth gasping at the air.
“Boots!”
Her tiny fingers, opening, closing.
A-da
A tear slides down her cheek.  I am struck by her beauty and how much of an adult she has become.  I have so many questions for her, and I will never be able to ask any of them.
“I hold you always,” she says, repeating my own confused words back to me.
Her tears spill over, and so do mine, my long sleep over, my dark age turned to light.”

*****

Jason Gurley is truly a master at story telling.  This remains one of my favorites to date.  I knew what was going to happen and it still tugs at my heart.

What did you think of the first time you read this story?

What were the themes of the book? Do you feel they were adequately explored? Were they brought to life in a cliche or in a unique manner?

What scene resonated most with you personally in either a positive or negative way? Why?

What surprised you the most about the book?

How important is the setting & time period to the story? How would it have played out differently in a different setting? What about a different time period?

Have you read any other books by this author? Were they comparable to your level of enjoyment to this one?

What did you learn from, take away from, or get out of this book?

*****

Don’t forget you can still vote for the next Leighgendary Short. Voting is open until Thursday morning at 8:00 am (est). You can vote every twelve hours.


What should the seventh Leighgendary Shorts be?
(polls)

If you like this you might like
Leighgendary Shorts: The Soul Collector: Borrowed Souls: Book 1
Death Ship by Richard Matheson – The Time Traveler’s Almanac
Leighgendary Shorts: Unconditional: A Tale of the Zombie Apocalypse by Chris Pourteau

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4 thoughts on “Leighgendary Shorts: The Dark Age by Jason Gurley

  1. The Dark Age is one of my favourite short stories. I’ve read it multiple times and read it again this morning and it never loses its impact.

    I think the power comes from two things.

    Firstly, it feels very authentic to me. There’s lots of little touches that just seem “right” – his wife’s realisation that getting married wouldn’t have stopped him signing up, the way the last video call ends untidily because his daughter is more interested in showing him her toys. Those little details really make the whole story feel real to me. Life isn’t neat and tidy, things don’t all fall into place at the last minute.

    The second thing I love about the story is how Jason Gurley gets across the powerlessness of the situation. He and the crew are haunted by regrets and I think that’s something a lot of people relate to, I certainly do.

    The scene where they come out of deep sleep is the most powerful for me – mostly because of Stefan. It’s just a couple of sentences but I find the idea that he missed his last chance to talk to his family and that they might have been waiting to hear from him incredibly powerful. It’s like a punch in the guy every time I read it. And then there’s the other punch in the gut of the single message epic from Elle. Fantastic stuff.

    This is one of those stories where the theme is there front and center. It doesn’t take an author’s note to see this is about a father watching his children grow up and how precious their moments together are. It would be easy to make this story too sappy, too saccharine, but it’s so well crafted that it works.

    I really enjoy Jason’s writing, Eleanor is great and I’m looking forward to the re-release next year. Not all of his short stories work for me but most of them do. The Caretaker is another one that I really like, but The Dark Age definitely holds top spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with everything you said.
      Why do you think the main character doesn’t have a name? Is it so you can insert your own name there?
      That part with Stefan is such a punch in the gut. I can’t imagine knowing you didn’t know about recording a final message.
      I love almost all of Jason Gurley’s stories.

      Like

      1. Yes, I think you’re right. Not having a named main character might be to allow readers to insert themselves into the story more. It doesn’t work that way for me though – I always picture someone else stories I read.

        Liked by 1 person

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