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Story 4

Libby A. Smith

Libby A. Smith is a two-time winner of the Little Rock Free Press' Literary Contest. Besides writing, she is also a stage actor in the Little Rock area, including two appearances with The Weekend Theater productions of "The Rocky Horror Show."

By day, she is an administrative assistant for the state of Arkansas. She lives in Little Rock with her three cats, where she's a member of the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group.

Other stories have appeared in Caliber Comic's "Negative Burn" and "Dominique: Protect and Serve," Hanthercraft Publications' "Tandra" and "Dragonroc" universe comics and website, and Shanda Fantasy Art's "Atomic Mouse."

She also adapted The Rainbow Bridge story to poetry form for counted cross stitch designer Sue Hillis' design "The Story of the Rainbow Bridge."

Libby has given us in Waiting a steam-punk-powered space adventure with a very human touch. Based on letters found from a tragically failed journey West by wagon train, Libby shows us the indomitable nature of the human spirit.






By Libby A. Smith

The October morning air held a chill, though Amanda Grogan didn’t bother going inside to fetch a wrap. The tea she sipped warmed her enough. After setting down her cup and saucer on the porch rail, she raised her spyglass, gazing towards the road. She’d been waiting for her grandson for nearly a week, something she strongly disliked. It seemed so idle, even when filled with needlepoint and watching travelers passing by on their way to Memphis.

Amanda smiled when she saw her grandson’s buggy. The waiting was over. She checked her bonnet to assure it wouldn’t slip backwards and expose her face to the wind and sun. Although the lane leading to the main road had once been lined with majestic shade trees, they had been taken down during the war for use by both armies and never replanted.

Though hardly ladylike, especially for a woman of sixty-four, she lifted her skirts and walked as swiftly as she could up the lane towards the road to meet him. The relief Amanda felt that John's ship had once again arrived safely was mixed with jealousy that she could only experience his adventures through his stories. Proper, decent women stayed earthbound, reduced to train and water travel, as even airship transportation was still considered scandalous.

Amanda saw herself as a strong woman. However, she’d been raised on a large, prosperous cotton plantation where she’d been taught to obey all society’s rules. Normally she clung to her propriety, which was all she had left from her younger days.

Although she’d thought him way too young for such a risky pursuit, her son had started a space transport business with the trust fund his paternal grandparents had left him. Amanda had argued with him, but as soon as he’d turned eighteen, the money was his. Despite her skepticism, the firm quickly became one of the first successful ventures of its type. This allowed her to return to a life of leisure following one of struggling to raise him alone after her husband had died in the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee during that horrible War Between the States. Unfortunately, relaxation no longer suited her, even with frequent travels to Earth’s more exotic sites.

Her boredom was short lived. Six years later, her son died when his ship broke apart upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere just weeks before his wife died of a fever. Amanda once again flung herself into the raising of a small boy, her grandson John, and took over the day-to-day aspects of the business.

Despite knowing the dangers of space travel, she’d often found herself gazing upward at the stars, reflecting on her employees’ adventures. She kept the books and supervised the contract negotiations out of necessity, never once daring to mention how she dreamed of experiencing space travel for herself. Some people in society were shocked that she involved herself in running the business at all. So as soon as John was old enough, she’d retired to a life of boredom.

John pulled his wagon to a stop. "Grandmother! You should have waited for me at the house. You might fall and break your arm again. And to think you claimed I was too impatient as a boy." He leapt from the wagon as she grabbed the halter of one of the horses to hold the team steady.

"Only because you take after me. Welcome home," she commented as he kissed her cheek. "Your telegram said your journey was successful even though you didn’t make moonlanding?"

"Yes. The ghost ships and cabins we found to salvage had little in the way of trade goods to be of any use to the colonies, I’m afraid. What I didn’t tell you in the telegram is that our finds this trip were of great historic value."


"We found intact cabins from the first spacetrain."

"That experiment completely failed. No one reached the moon and if they had, they were totally unprepared… Well, it is no matter. The train was filled with criminals and prostitutes who had no place in our society."

"Grandmother, there were families aboard which nothing I have read or studied mentions." John reached into his inside coat pocket. "Most of what we could salvage along with the remains of the travelers, I sold to The Society for Civilized Moon Colonization as soon as word of my find got out. However, I thought you’d appreciate this letter."

Amanda took the paper, carefully unfolding it. She noticed the date. "So very long ago. Why, this was the year your father was born!"


Summer 1843

To my Father-in-Law,

I wait because there is nothing else I can do.

I write because there are things I must say in hopes this record of what my family has endured falls into your hands. Besides, there’s nothing else for me to do except wait for rescue or the end. Staring out at the stars no longer holds my interest, only terror. The fuel is spent. The air grows more frigid by the second. The flames in the lamps are beginning to fade as the air grows thinner. I know I should extinguish the lights but cannot face the darkness.

Leather straps hold my children securely in uncomfortable chairs fastened to the metal walls. Mary, Elizabeth, and Peter are delightful children. Mary is ten and already a big help to me. Elizabeth is a year younger and longs to be a teacher. Peter is only seven, yet there are few farm tasks he cannot handle. He reminds me of his father. They are blessedly oblivious to what is happening, thanks to strong doses of laudanum. I’ve allowed myself a small amount to ease my nerves and calm the pain of multiple bruises. It is with grief I tell you Little George is long past suffering. I long to undo his wrappings and gaze upon his sweet face. Only the memory of his mutilating injuries stops me.

We’d been warned the trip’s beginning might be rough. Instructions were given to make sure the straps were fastened tightly. Ned fastened in George himself and surely took extra care. I tell myself repeatedly it was accidental that our boy, only three, slipped out in the crushing force of takeoff and flew against the wall.

Yet, I can’t help reminding myself Ned’s actions are why we are on this Moon-bound spacetrain. Do you remember his temper? It is the one trait he inherited from you. He killed Mr. Johnson, who only asked for repayment of money rightfully his – a loan given to us during a time of great need.

He came to our sod home requesting repayment. Ned explained to Mr. Johnson we had no money and asked for another month. Mr. Johnson suggested if that was the case, our oxen could serve as repayment. This sent Ned into a rage, for he had no other way to break the hard ground. Not wanting the children to witness their father in such a state, I took them inside. Moments later, I heard the gunshot.

I rushed back outside to find Ned shaking, still holding the revolver in his hand. He looked at me, his expression one of horror. To be honest, I don’t know if it was horror at what he’d done or the realization of what this would mean for his family. If it wasn’t for us, he’d have bravely faced any punishment for his deed.

We both assumed he’d be sentenced to hang. Remembering my wedding vows of "for better or for worse," I visited him as much as I could while he awaited trial to assure him I’d do my best to provide the children with an adequate life. I put on a brave face despite knowing part of me would die with him. Truly, over the years of our marriage I’d grown to love Ned very much.

Imagine our surprise when the judge offered Ned an alternative -- the chance for free land and a new start helping to colonize the Moon, as well as a full pardon of his crime. He immediately accepted the offer, intending to go alone with the promise of sending for us if it were ever possible.

After the agony of waiting for his sentencing, I could not stand to be separated from him any longer. Ned and I finally agreed our family should remain together. I’m sure you were not far from either of our minds as we made the decision that we should all emigrate.

I can’t deny I was equally excited at the possibilities of such an adventure. I immediately set about packing with the same eagerness I’d done when preparing to travel with him to Kansas. We had only a few days before starting the journey to Florida where the spacetrain waited.

During the trip south by wagon, boat and train, there were frequent lessons to teach the men about the spacetrain. I sat in a few times when the children were sleeping. To my dismay, we’d be unable to take most of the meager belongings with us. Since we’d be unable to cook, pre-cooked food would be provided. We were told we could bring one outfit each, but during the actual journey to the Moon, even the women would have to wear special garments with trousers that covered the entire body from ankle to wrist to neck. Leather caps and goggles were necessary due to the risk of injury from even the tiniest of crumbs or debris in the acceleration we’d encounter. I lost the argument to bring the children’s schoolbooks, though they agreed to a few pencils and a tablet of paper to assist with lessons. At least they did allow each family or group a Bible.

Despite the information we received, we found ourselves unprepared for the monstrous size of the spacetrain. Surely there were mountains smaller in height! I could not see the engine through the clouds and fog. When I commented, Ned explained to me that although most people called it in a spacetrain, the mechanics and fuel which would blast us into the heavens were actually contained in the caboose at the bottom. What I thought of as the engine was merely a cone or point to help us achieve flight into the heavens. Somewhere along the way to the Moon, each individual cabin would split away from the main part of the train to complete the journey on its own power.

Upon reaching the Moon our travel cabins would become our homes, as no one expected any native building materials to be found. At least by then the fuel and storage lockers could be cleaned and used as living space.

A daunting series of platforms and ladders outlined the spacetrain. We were taken in hot air balloons to our assigned cabins since it’d have been impossible for even the strongest of men to climb more than a few sections on his own power. When they gathered us all in the balloon launch area, I was appalled to see that the majority of those who would help build the Moon colony were men, rough men with few manners. There were few other women and even fewer children. As we waited for our balloon assignment, I tried to shelter the children from the foul language and women who flirted shamelessly, but it proved difficult.

My children were thrilled with the balloon ride until it began to rock a bit due to the winds at the higher elevations. Elizabeth began crying and clung to fabric of my hideous trousers while Pete and Mary merely fell quiet, refusing to look over the edge of the basket. George, however, took great delight, laughing and clapping his hands. Once we were helped onto the platform and into the cabin, he wiggled from my arms and ran about the best he could manage in the small cabin.

Even after Ned had performed the pre-flight checks on the various machines within the cabin, George was full of life and refusing to calm himself. I tried to grab him, but even in the small space he eluded me.

"We only have a few minutes," Ned shouted over the rumble and roar starting to shake the spacetrain. "Strap the other children in, then yourself. I’ll take care of George."

I did as I was told, the other children giving me no trouble. Ned finally managed to wrestle George, spanking the boy as he rushed to fasten him against the wall.

"Make sure the bonds are strong," I said automatically over George’s howls of protest. What mother wouldn’t?

"They are!" Ned assured me, rushing to his own spot just as the rumbling of the engines turned to a full blasting roar. I could see the near panic in my husband’s expression as he finally buckled his last strap.

Has anyone ever endured such a crush of pressure as the spacetrain blasting from the ground towards the stars? I still wonder how we survived those initial moments. The scientists told us to expect some discomfort, some increase in gravity, not the agony of an invisible stone crushing us against the wall! I suspect those buried in avalanches or the collapse of coal mines suffer less pain and fear.

During this nightmare I witnessed George struggling to reach a strap which had slipped to his neck. You can imagine my desire, my basic instinct, to reach my son! I struggled to free myself of my straps, though at that point it was too late. I was unable to move to help him such was the pressure which now pinned me in place.

I cried out in anguish. When the forces finally eased, I managed to turn my head to look at my husband. He was also weeping. Whether out of guilt or grief, I don’t know. It was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.

Ned was a good man despite occasional outbursts of temper. I still believe this though I’m sure Mr. Johnson’s family would disagree. They know him only by one action. I know him from years of marriage. After all, what other sort of man would step forward to marry me under the circumstances?

Do you remember when I first came to your family’s home as a governess to tutor your young, motherless daughters? Did you ever know my family had once been as well to do as yours? I don’t recall you ever asking, just inquiring about my references and education. A series of crop misfortunes and bad investments followed by the fire which destroyed our main house and a number of slave cabins left us destitute when I was barely thirteen. Several hungry, hard years passed before I learned of the governess position and ventured to your family’s plantation, eager to once again be part of a large, comfortable household under any terms. You hired me that same afternoon.

I thought you’d fallen in love with me. Maybe in a way you had. Why else would you sneak flowers and other tokens of affection into my room while warning me not to let the slaves know, as they had a tendency to gossip? I try not to believe you were merely toying with my youth and naivety. I had little knowledge of men and women the night we encountered each other in the library. You spoke tender words leading to kisses which quickly led to more. I’m still embarrassed and ashamed to admit that even to myself. Did you seduce me or did I allow myself to be used?

Even now as I wait and remember, I’m uncertain.

How puzzled I was when you avoided me the next few weeks. Now I realize you quit me because you’d achieved the ultimate prize of my purity. I suspect I would have been left with nothing but my lost virtue had I not found myself with child. When I told you, I expected you to behave like an honorable man and insist on an immediate wedding. Imagine my shock when you called me a whore and even accused me of fornication with your overseer. You ordered me from your house and property immediately as your daughters, attracted by the shouting, watched from the partially opened door.

I had nowhere to go, no one to whom I could turn for help. Can you blame me for my outrage?

Your son had far more honor than you ever did. When his sisters told him what they’d heard, he came to my room as I packed and graciously offered to marry me though we’d hardly exchanged more than a few words during my employment. How gentlemanly and handsome Ned was as he took my shaking hand into his to make the proposal, saying he was sure we’d come to love each other. For the sake of my baby, I agreed.

Upon hearing the news, you were furious – more furious than your earlier outburst. You ranted and raved about how Ned marrying your governess would hurt your social standing. You disowned your son on the spot, sending us out into the night.

Now that I have children of my own I wonder even more how you could claim Ned was no longer your son! The thought appalls me and speaks volumes of your nature. Ned assured me the estrangement was worth saving my honor. He repeated it often as the years went by and our affection for each other as well as our family grew.

Did you ever receive word of the birth and death of your daughter of a fever less than a year later? There was no church in the area thus neither priest nor preacher to perform a proper burial. Ned dug the grave as I roused myself from sorrow long enough to read a few passages from the Bible. We didn’t have the luxury of a proper period of mourning. Winter was coming and there were preparations to be made.

I was fortunate in that Ned did not fear hard work though he’d previously never experienced it for long periods of time. When the strain of building our sod home, shelter for the animals, and plowing the land became too much, his temper would surface. Perhaps I was fortunate in that his anger did not manifest itself in striking me or our growing number of children, but he would rant and rave about little things such as cold biscuits for breakfast. Sometimes he’d storm out of our home, disappearing for hours, a few times overnight. Ned always apologized when he returned, begging my forgiveness. When he had money, he’d bring candy for the children and perhaps calico for me.

Because I knew he truly loved me, I learned to wait for his return.

I suppose none of that seemingly distant past matters now. What’s done is done now that your son is dead. He doesn’t have to endure this final suffering. Ned doesn’t have to look upon his remaining children strapped against the metal wall of a moon-bound cabin.

Not that we’ve been forced to spend the entire journey fastened to the chairs. As soon as the turbulence of trip’s beginning eased, Ned released himself from the straps. There is no gravity once you are in space so he floated to me much like a feather caught in the wind preceding a storm while ordering the children to stay where they were for the moment. They were hysterical yet did not argue. Ned took my hand and together we swam through the air to poor George’s mangled body. We both already knew our son was dead. I wrapped my arms around George as Ned held me.

At some point, my husband released me to retrieve a sheet from our one trunk. This time is a blur to me although I recall our belongings escaping when the trunk was opened and floating about the cabin as Ned struggled to wrap the sheet around George. Realizing our other children needed me, I gained enough control of my grief to help.

Once again, we did not have time to properly mourn a lost child. When the sad task of enshrouding George was finished, Ned began checking the gauges as he’d been instructed to do. In a voice rough from crying, he announced we had air and heat and power. He offered us hardtack and bottles of water, though no one could bring themselves to eat or drink.

We spent most of our time in the straps to keep from banging around the cabin. I occasionally read from the Bible and drilled the children on various verses to pass the time. Sometimes I’d hold a tablet against any available surface so Peter could practice writing his ABCs. We took turns opening and peering from the various small windows, including one to which a small telescope had been attached. The Moon looked horrifically bleak and gray though Ned led us in discussions of how we’d be the first to colonize it, which always excited the children. He talked about how we’d have to dig wells for water and irrigation as the Moon’s ground was desert.

We could also always see at least one other cabin, sometimes several. Chemical lights lined the outside of each cabin, allowing them to be visible against the stars. At times, we could even see the Earth, truly a beautiful sight.

There was no way to mark the passage of time, or even of day and night. The clock had been broken by our blast into space. Thus I don’t know how long we’d been traveling when Ned, upon looking out, came to me and told me in a whisper there was a cabin not far from us whose lights were dimming. He needed to go see if he could be of help.

I urged him to wait for the rescue cabins. Surely they’d pass by sooner or later.

He asked me if I’d seen one.

Indeed I hadn’t. We were told should trouble occur, there’d be help. We were also told the journey would be an easy one, yet George was dead. I reminded him the cabins were full of criminals, some murderers.

My remark brought a smile to his face as he reminded me his own crime was why we were on our way to the moon. Reaching out, he ran his hand across my leather cap and I’m sure longed to do the same to my hair, something he often did back in our sod home. He explained he could leave our cabin through the waste locker and enter through theirs since there were levers both inside and out.

I argued no further. Although space would be bitterly cold and airless, Ned assured me he’d hold his breath and swim to the malfunctioning vessel just as he did through our own cabin.

The lockers were created so that our bodily wastes and other trash could be vented into space. We were supposed to send any bodies out the same way. I’d refused to do so with George. We’d left one child in the dirt of Earth so would bury our son in the dust of the Moon.

You may not understand the power of family love but I thank God your son did.

Normally, we’d open the locker to place the trash inside. Once done, we’d tightly seal the locker before pulling a lever which retracted a door to the outside allowing the waste to be sent into space. This time, Ned entered on his own, and assured that I’d tightly shut the cabin door, he nodded to me.

I pulled the lever. Ned drifted into space. I watched as he swam a few strokes then stopped moving, simply drifting as if floating in a pond. I shouted his name. My hand automatically went up in anticipation of opening the locker and going to my husband. Only Mary’s cry of "Mother, don’t leave us" stopped me.

Knowing I could not follow your example and forsake my own children, I ordered them away from the windows. Gently, I explained their father had sacrificed himself in an attempt to help others. Is there a more honorable death? I immediately went back into our routine of food, Bible verses, and even a few singing games to distract them from the horror.

It was Pete who first complained of dizziness and a chill in the air. I checked the gauges and found them dying. Even the mechanical sounds to which I’d become accustomed seemed to be falling silent. The chemical-created lights which lined the walls dimmed. Although I frequently looked out the windows, I never saw a rescue cabin.

That’s when I began losing hope.

That’s when I made the decision to have the children take the laudanum so the last moments of their lives would not be one of fear.

I now wait with my children as they sleep and die.

My husband murdered a man who owed him money.

His father murdered us all.


Amanda felt her grandson wiping her cheek with his handkerchief. "Oh, dear, John. She didn’t sign it. How will we ever find her family? I’ve seen lists of those sentenced to the journey, but there were no women or children on it."

"Find the family? Surely this monstrous father-in-law is long dead."

"Yes, he would be, I suppose. Perhaps there are nieces or grandnephews. It would be a shame for her memory to be lost."

John nodded. "There was a Bible found in their cabin. I only glanced at it. I remember there being some family information. My apologies as I should have made notes. I will write the society and ask them to provide a list."

"No," Amanda replied as she refolded the letter. "Let me, though I don’t suppose there’ll be time to receive a reply before your next launch."

"There should be. I don’t intend going back up myself until after the New Year."

"Wonderful!" Amanda said. "That should give me plenty of time to prepare to go with you."

"Go with me?" John exclaimed. "Grandmother, have you taken leave of your senses? Space isn’t a place for women."

"Well, from this letter you brought me, I see that I won’t be the first. I know the dangers and I am going."

"You are far too old!"

Amanda squeezed his hand, smiling up into his green eyes. Eyes that were much like his grandfather’s, framed by red hair. He still looked so boyish, so young. "I’ve spent my life waiting for something: adventure, letters from your grandfather when he was a soldier, for your father to return from space and now for you."


"I’m going whether you like it or not." Amanda released his hand, stepping back while not letting her gaze falter.

John sighed, nodding once.

Amanda smiled and slipped her arm through his as they strolled up the lane to the house, the horses and buggy following slowly behind. Using her free hand, she slipped her bonnet back and felt the sun’s warmth on her face. "I’m quite finished with waiting."


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