Short Story: Sojourner

This was one of my submissions to the Sword and Laser anthology. It didn’t get accepted, but I hope you all enjoy it anyway.

Once mission control gave us the okay, Q and I fumbled our way out of confinement and stared open mouthed at the Earth as it lay out below us. The sapphire blue of the ocean was brighter than any picture and I could see a tropical depression forming over the Atlantic near the equator. I wanted to impress the image of the Earth on my mind, to hold it there forever because I would never see it again.

“It looks so peaceful,” Q mused in a dreamy voice.

“Yeah,” I answered, “it’s like an ant hill, you can’t see the life teaming inside until you get up close.”

Q rolled her eyes at me, “We have God’s own view of the Earth and you compare humans to gross little ants?”

“No, I compared the Earth to an ant hill, not humans to ants.” I retort with a tiny smile, and then I pushed away from the window and did a backflip, because I could.

Her eyes narrowed at me and my too-fast backflip, “I’m just going to let you spin there.” she muttered as I whirled out of control.

“No you won’t.” I called, “If I make myself motion sick and vomit in zero gravity, well I don’t know what will happen, but I don’t think you want to deal with that either.” Q continued to glare at me as she extended a hand to halt my tumble, but I knew she was never really mad. It would take more than a little banter with me to break her shell.

That night we were so excited even the rehydrated food tasted new and wonderful. This was the beginning of our great space adventure after all, the greatest ever undertaken by man.

“To being stars!” Q declared raising her container of rehydrated ice tea.

I beamed back at her, “To more than we ever were on Earth!” I chimed with glee as we pressed our plastic pouches together.

On day thirty-three of two hundred and thirty-three, Q and I had our first fight. You might say it was the stress of the milestone, only two hundred days left, but realistically it was the stress of living together in a container the size of our old living room, with no place to go and nothing to do. Not that there were no diversions in the Mars Lander II. Exploration Co, LLC had been very generous in the amenities they provided us, but at the end of the day, I was still trapped in a metal box without access to the outside world.

I apologized to Q after an hour, not that I thought it was my fault, but when you have been married for thirty years you learn that that’s what the man does and shut up about it. Plus, it is hard to stay mad at the only person with whom you are regularly able to speak and are completely unable to avoid. The habitable portion of the Lander is so small we can never be outside of each other’s sight, not that we have not tried, thirty years of marriage has also taught us that sometimes we need personal space and there is none of that here.

Most days are the same, we try to stay on Earth, United States, Central time, because that is the time most of our friends and family are following and being on a space craft with the sun always peeking through our left hand window means there are no days or nights for us. Pretending like there are seems to help us stay sane though, we even set aside time after breakfast and before dinner to do the things that feel like work. Clean the space ship, take inventory, monitor the settings on the space craft (not that we really understand them,) talk to mission control, whatever. At night we try and talk with our son and daughter, the grandkids chat with us too, but they are all too young to understand what is happening, our oldest grandson just asked when we are coming back to visit and will we bring him presents.

On day fifty-six our daughter tells us she is pregnant for the second time, Q and I try to act excited but I cannot quite muster it. I watch Q’s face as she reassures her daughter that we will be able to watch the birth from Mars, it will not quite be live because of the time delay in the information relay, but we will never know the difference anyway.

After the conversation we flick off the screen and I know my face matches Q’s, the unasked, unanswered question hanging in the air between us: did we make a mistake?

Q was a nurse by training and had worked in the emergency room for twenty-five years before retiring early and volunteering at a free clinic for the homeless. I had been an electrical engineer and created biomedical equipment, next generation MRIs mostly. We had put in an application with Exploration Co, LLC within a week of the announcement of their plan to land humans on the surface of Mars, never dreaming we would be interviewed, much less picked. We met the requirements and really, who wouldn’t want to go to Mars?

Exploration sent their first manned mission into Mars’ orbit in 2018; they were an older couple, past childbearing years, like us, as was every Exploration team. It was a revolutionary event that rewrote textbooks all over the world. It turns out the human body can withstand a lot more cosmic radiation and muscle atrophy then anyone could have predicted. Extended stays in space up your chance for cancer and whatnot, but humans had known that since the early days of space exploration.

Since then eleven Exploration teams have journeyed to Mars, spent three months in orbit and returned safely to Earth. One other expedition, the fifth attempt, was destroyed by an unpredicted solar flare. This is the program we joined six years ago. We both spoke of it aloud as pioneering work in space science, but thought of it in our heads as an elaborate vacation. Complete with pictures no one else would ever procure and a story to tell the grandkids.

Two years ago, Exploration launched the Mars Lander I, with a mission to land on Mars and begin setting up a human colony there. Mars Lander I made it through the atmosphere, but impacted the surface of the planet at over ten times the speed it was designed for, smashing the landing compartment across the Martian landscape and killing the Williams couple on impact. Q and I had known them, we had several of our training courses together and I had spent several hours waiting to be checked out by doctors with Allen Williams every month. It was difficult for us and for the world, media uproar followed, but Exploration did not alter its planned mission schedule.

About a month after the failed Mars Lander I, Exploration told us, their recruits, that a Mars Lander II missions would soon be announced and asked for crew volunteers. The mission was too important, Exploration claimed, and Q and I agreed: what is the dose of cosmic radiation an individual receives on Mars? Is it prohibitive of normal human reproduction? How does the lower gravity affect the human body? What about crop plants? So many questions and only one way to answer them.

We debated about it a long while before finally deciding to volunteer; our two children were grown and married with kids of their own. The Exploration stipend paid to our next of kin for the duration of the mission or twenty years would give them more financial security then we ever could, and our names would live in the annals of human history.

We were the only volunteers. Or the only ones that qualified, they never said. It was not until halfway through our training that we learned the already high psychological standards of Exploration were even higher for Landers.

Now on day fifty-six of our journey to the red planet, the question hovered in the air between us: did we make a mistake? It had been there before, but never so palpable, so immense that it filled our little world leaving room for nothing else.

On Day eighty-seven I yelled at the TV host. Exploration was partially funded by various media contracts, one of which involved Q and I starring in our own reality TV show. The Williams’ had a show too and I don’t remember it being particularly interesting to watch, but the voyeuristic nature of human beings should never be underestimated and we still commanded a weekly, hour-long, prime time spot. The TV host appeared to interview us for several hours every week which would be cut down and packaged up along with footage from the week to make our show. Today he asked about a divorce filing Q had initiated, but never followed through with, less than two years into our marriage.

Needless to say that did not sit well with me, and I blew up at the guy, cutting our interview off short. Afterwards, Q left me to cool down for an hour or so before we talked about it. It turned out to be one of the best talks we ever had about the incident which rankled me even thirty years later. I called up the TV show host and apologized, he claimed to understand, that we were under a lot of stress. He apologized too for inquiring about such a sensitive subject. I was right, he claimed, it was not his business or the world’s.  We finished the interview.

The next day our psychiatrist phoned the Lander and insisted on discussing the incident with me. She had analyzed video of the incident and I believed she had already made up her mind on my mental state before even speaking to me. Not that Exploration could do anything about it now. Our course was set and we lacked the fuel to return to Earth, even if one of us had a complete mental breakdown, we were still going to Mars.

All the talking about my feelings left me so wrung out that I resolved never to yell at anyone for as long as I lived. I did the math and realized I might only live for another 165 days, unless the air locks failed or we were struck by an errant piece of space junk or whatever. Then I might die sooner. I began to sob uncontrollably, my shoulders heaving up and down with exertion, my breath rasping in and out. Q tried to calm me down and comfort me. Then, a rubber band tightened around my upper arm, a cool alcohol swab brushed me, and I felt the pinch of the nettle in my bicep before the fuzzy edges of the world rose up and consumed my view.

That was day eighty-eight, it was my worst day on the flight to Mars, the day I realized we were already doomed even if everything goes as planned. After all, the best case scenario just abandons us to be the world’s longest on-going physiological and psychological human experiment. Q’s bad day was 113.

It was a normal day, for us anyway. We woke up, rehydrated our food and ate in silence. We had not spoken much since day eighty-eight, at the time I thought this was because Q was avoiding me after my outburst, although now I realize it was because she wrestled her own thoughts. I was learning Russian, the computer program kept insisting I was saying koshka wrong and in my own absorption it had not occurred to me that the sound of this exchange might be aggravating to listen to for a half hour straight.

Q slammed down the book she was reading in anger, accidently sending herself flying into the ceiling of the ship, zero gravity can be a bit tricky sometimes. Shoving herself around to face me she screamed, “Give me that damn thing!”

Ripping the microphone out of my hands she yelled, “Kashka.”

To which the computer woman placidly replied, “Koshka, ko.. sh… ka… Koshka.”

Q let out a strangled, gulping sound like she wanted to release all of her frustration in a single ear splitting howl, but could not inhale enough air. “Why the hell are you learning Russian anyway? It’s not like there are Russians on Mars! And you’re terrible at it, you couldn’t communicate with a Russian even if by some one in a trillion chance you met one!”

I sat there contemplating her, vaguely wondering if apologizing would even do anything, too shocked to respond with any venom of my own. Then we got a call and the computer screen switched over to the psychologists face, it was past midnight her time and her hair was disheveled, her normally perfect make-up removed.

The psychologist opened her mouth to speak, but instead I heard Q’s wailing, “No, I don’t want to talk to you. We have nothing to talk about.” Q fumbled past me to flick off the communications link, but it stayed on.

Whatever the psychologists said next was drowned by Q’s tantrum. She started assaulting the visible cameras and microphones trying to remove them from computer consoles or the walls. I stayed in motionless limbo unsure what to do about the situation, until Q started throwing things. It was quite comical for a while as bits of trash and Q’s book went bouncing harmlessly around my head and the force required sent her flipping backwards or compulsively pin wheeling her arms to compensate.

Q’s eyes ran about the room looking for a better projectile and alighted on nothing in particular, at which point she pushed off from the opposite wall of our room to bring her body slamming into the computer console. I bounded up and intercepted her wrapping my arms and legs around hers we floated near the council as Q continued to wail.

“We can never go back.” She cried, “You’ll never meet a Russian, we’ll never see our grandbaby, I’ll never eat pizza, never ever, ever, again, none of it! It’s all gone!” She cried herself out of words.

We continued to float there, rotating slowly until she sobbed herself into a comatose state. “I know,” I said then and she tried to turn her head to look at me, but I elected not to release her arms and legs.

“Even if we get to Mars, even if we land correctly and even if we start to set up a colony, if we manage to grow things in our green house and never hurt ourselves or have heart attacks or whatever, even if we live sixty more years, we are still as good as dead to everyone back on Earth, and Earth is as good as dead to us.”

We knew this when we signed up of course, we had known it for years. It was different now, to know it in your mind or to feel it nagging at the back of your thoughts every second of every day. The difference between being told you had terminal cancer and feeling the slow death crawl up in your bones. The difference between thinking of fifty as old, but not elderly and waking up each morning with a will to live, but new aches where there had never been any before. The difference between being told you were an adult and having your rent check bounce. That is the difference; that is this moment for Q.

Q returns to her coma, but I still hold her. I am not sure who I am comforting, myself or her. It feels good to know we are in the same boat, that she understands now, but it feels horrible too. Guilt washes over me at my selfishness, it would be better if Q had stayed oblivious forever, surrounded by a golden cloud of optimism as my cloud grows darker and darker. She was never truly oblivious, her mind just held it together a little longer than mine did.

I sigh at this thought and Q stirs a little, enough to readjust and make my embrace feel like a snuggle instead of a submission hold, “It’s beautiful.” She says meekly. My eyes refocus and I see that I am looking out the window on the side of the ship at the most clear and perfect night sky any human has ever seen. I relax my hold on Q so we can cuddle properly and we continue to spin in the middle of the room, gazing out the window, and thinking our thoughts, knowing without speaking that they are the same.

It is the 127th day when we see Mars Orbiter Thirteen passing us in the opposite direction. It is hard to watch. Nevertheless, we sit at the window and see the tiny moving speck pass a hundred miles away from us as it glints in the sunlight. We wave from our window even though it could be a shiny comet for all we know.

“It’s the last time we’ll ever see another human being.” Q says.

“No, it’s the last time we’ll be within a hundred miles of another human being,” I correct.

Q nods and returns to silent waving, a beep from the computer consul alerts us to it. An image from the Mars Orbiter pops up on screen and our two compatriots are waving happily back at us. A couple tears trickle down my checks then, Q averts her face from the monitor as if she is still watching the distant ship, and tears glitter in her eyes too.

It is day 156 and we decide to play a prank on our Exploration handler. His name is Jeff and he has the air of an overworked customer service representative. We can deactivate the cameras and microphones completely for thirty minutes a day upon our request and Q does so unexpectedly.

Normally that means it is sexy time, but today Q calls across the room, “I have a plan.”

“Okay,” I respond, she has not been this excited for days.

“When Jeff comes we pretend that we’re dead.” She pronounces this command as deadpan as possible which draws a bout of laughter from me.

“I’m serious!” She insists and would have stamped her foot like a child, but here that would just launch her into the ceiling.

“I know,” I say, stuffing my giggles down and wiping my eyes, “But I think we should do it as soon as the camera’s come on, if we wait for Jeff it will look to suspicious.”

Q thinks about this for a second, “Good point, but I don’t want to disrupt his day or anything.”

I shrug, “What’s to disrupt? He’s probably already at the office being briefed on what to talk with us about.”

Her brow furrows in thought. I have no idea why she cares about how Jeff’s day is going; if we pretend to be dead, it will probably be a pretty bad day for him.

“What are we going to do anyway?” I ask, “We could make it a brutal murder suicide, but I’d rather not waste the ketchup.” My eyes drift longingly to the food cabinets. I love ketchup.

“No I think we should pretend there is a crack or something and all the oxygen has leaked out.” Q answers.

I snort, “There’s like a bazillion detectors on this thing, they’ll see right through that.”

“Not right away, there’s a time lag here for transmission and they might think some of the sensors have frozen up.” She insists.

“Eh, sure why not try. At worst they’ll be the ones laughing and not us.”

We set to work, ripping everything that is not tide down off the ground and setting it meandering about through the air as if a strong force had pulled everything in one direction, but now that the pressure was equalized things were just mostly floating in a corner. After the five minute warning beep issues from the computer, Q sets herself up to spin in the same corner as all the stuff while I attach one of the bed straps to my foot and swing back and forth with my (hopefully) dead looking face poised over a camera.

A series of rapid beeps issues informing us that the cameras are back and we do our best dead act. After a few minutes, I see Jeff appear on one of the computer screens.

“This isn’t funny.” He says and I just barely manage not to smile. Apparently, Q keeps her composure too because after a minute he sighs.

There is silence for a long time then, “Jesus, Tina what if they really are dead?” Jeff mutters to someone else in the control room.

A woman flicks up onto the screen next to him, but I cannot see her from this angle “There fine, we’d know if anything happened to the ship.” She insists and I recognize the voice, Tina is the head rocket scientist or engineer or whatever.

“Are you sure?” Jeff sounds worried, “Neither of them has moved a muscle in ten minutes and look at Q that cannot be comfortable.”

I almost turn to see what Q is doing, but remember myself. Tina’s face grows larger and she examines several things around the computer. “They probably did this while the cameras were off, there is nothing wrong. They’ll break eventually, just watch them.”

Tina walks away and Jeff settles in to observe our drifting. This continues for another half our and I develop wicked itches on my right shoulder blade, my left knee, and the very tip of my nose. Finally Tina comes back, along with several other Exploration employees.

“I think they’re really dead.” Jeff says a bit of awe and sadness creeping in. The next several minutes involve a rotation of people coming to gawk at us, they begin to place bets on how long we’ll last or if we’re actually dead, which upsets Jeff.

Finally a guy walks up and talks into the microphone on their end, “I have a joke for you,” He announces, and then switches the video feed over to a compilation of men getting hit in the balls. I wince reflexively before busting out laughing at one unfortunate man. My laughter is uncontrollable and I hear Q’s characteristic, merry peel rolling out along with my own.

It is day 181 when they get us back. I am practicing my Russian and Q is reading when all the electronic screens change to a close up shot of a bunny and refuse to switch back. At first this is not so bad. The bunny is kind of cute. After about a half hour, however, I notice that it is the creepiest bunny known to man.

“I think the bunny is watching me.” I whisper to Q.

“There are people watching you too.” She whispers back, “Who cares about a bunny?”

A few minutes later she blocks all the bunnies with her book, a pillow, whatever is available. An hour later, I think, what if the bunnies have gone away, maybe I should check. The bunny is gone and Jeff’s manically grinning face has replaced it.

“That’s just weird.” I say and Q floats around to look over my shoulder.

“Huh, well I guess we deserve that,” she observes and goes back to reading her book.

I cover Jeff’s face then uncover it to see if it has changed, nope still Jeff. I study the image wondering if it is actually him or a recording.

Suddenly he starts laughing in my face, there is a faint collective “Aw, come on Jeff,” in the background.

“Man, I’m impressed. I don’t know how you guys kept that up for so long.” he says, before we all sit down for our usual talk, chuckling.

It is day 203 when the reverse thrusters fire for the first time. We barely notice the shift in acceleration, but we still know it is happening and that makes us think we notice. This will be happening periodically for the next thirty days until we land on the surface of Mars. The idea is to reduce the acceleration required to launch us out of Earth’s orbit and across the solar system to a manageable rate. Other thrusters fire as well to produce small course corrections and keep us on target to land at Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator.

It is day 219 and tension is ratcheting up. Our little capsule has become a cook pot of emotion, as Q and I both know these could be our last two weeks of life. Mars blossoms out of the night sky to fill most of our forward view now and my emotions towards it are mixed. I loathe Mars as the sight of my grave. Whether in a few days or a few years I will almost certainly die there, but I seek relief from this journey and Mars offers that as well. There is also an undeniable curiosity, we will be the first humans to look with our own eyes at the surface of another planet and that is no small wonder.

On day 231 the viewing windows close as our little capsule prepares for entry. Everything is sealed off. The containment is done a few days in advance in case a spacewalk is required to fix any problems; although I bet a spacewalk would not do much good if there was a problem, we would just have an extra day to freak out about the problem.

Adrenaline pours from every corner of our tiny living space and through the computer monitor every time someone comes to talk with us. We give our last TV interview. Footage from Mars Lander I was aired live back on Earth, right up until the moment the craft broke apart. They still captured and broadcast the horror on Andrea’s face when things went wrong and she knew it was over, Exploration does not plan a live broadcast of our landing. The TV host signs off and we are left alone.

The next day we prepare our compartment for landing, securing everything, not that I expect it does much good, but it gives us something to do. I do not think either of us has slept and we float about like space zombies, barely even able to react to outside stimulus. At midnight we strap ourselves in, we will contact Martian atmosphere for the first time at 2:34 am CST, or so they tell us. I doubt Exploration can be that on with their math, in my head I refer to it as first Martian contact at two-thirtyish. While we are sitting crammed into our chairs I hold Q’s hand and she grasps my back, firmly but not desperately. We sit there in silence for several hours, I develop an itch on my left butt check and try to shift about to scratch it.

“I love you,” Q says in a matter of fact voice when the clock flips to 2:34.

“I love you too.” I say and am overwhelmed by how true it is.

The ride continues smoothly for several more minutes before we begin to hit turbulence. Our room jostles about and I press the back of my head into the seat, breathing deeply to try to still the rapid beating of my heart. I am unsure if I am excited or just plain terrified. I wonder if this is how every man that faced the firing squad, the noose, or the executioner’s ax has felt throughout history. Even though my death will be so vastly different, the same chemicals flow in my veins the same emotions erupting in their wake. Beside me I hear Q praying, I never went to church except when she made me and I do not even know the words of the prayer.

The turbulence increases, suddenly, the reverse thrusters kick in on full blast, jerking us back and forcing us into the depths of our chairs. The force is painful. My chest feels like it will collapse under the weight and I am certain my right femur has snapped. It keeps going and I can no longer hear Q’s prayer over the beating of blood in my eardrums.

This stretches on, on and on, I think perhaps I have died already. It stops and I have a strange sensation of free fall before a lesser jerk, the parachute opening reduces our falling speed. We are still traveling very fast, I think, although my lack of sensory queues from the outside means I have no way to confirm. The stillness is pressing and Q grabs my hand back fiercely, startling me. My body senses the return of gravity before my eyes notice all the objects are resting on the bottom of the room, after nearly eight months in zero gravity it looks very incongruent.

“We’re going to hit soon.” Q says a note of panic in her voice and a sob escapes her lips. When the Williams made this journey they celebrated now, giving each other an awkward hand hug and the Earth cheered before they were dashed across the Martian landscape. I hear Q hyperventilating, she is losing it.

“It’s okay-” I say lamely, but any other comfort is knocked from my body as we impact the surface of the planet for the first time. My head slams into the back of my chair, lights flash through my vision, leaving darkness in their place. The second or third hit rouses me again as the bone jarring impact rattles my soul.

We are not dead. A part of my brain registers, the capsule stayed intact. Time crawls by as our kinetic energy dissipates. I barely register a light flashing on to tell me it is safe to remove my restraint straps. I do it and roll out of my seat to my left, towards the force of gravity.

As I stand on shaky legs unaccustomed to even the light Martian gravity, I notice the windows have opened again. Standing at the back of my ship, my home, my prison, I gaze upon Mars for the first time to the tune of my hysterically weeping wife.

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About

Microbiology graduate student, book blogger, science blogger, and sometimes fiction writer.

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Posted in Renegade Anthology, Science Fiction, Short Story (<7500 words)
4 comments on “Short Story: Sojourner
  1. NicoleP says:

    Reblogged this on Nicole Land.

  2. eranamage says:

    What gave you the idea? I only ask as my partner read something about a manned mission to Mars along these lines, Apparently people were criticising the idea as it would be a one way trip but a load of people had signed up. http://www.geekosystem.com/100000-mars-one/

    Here are a couple of other articles you might find of interest. Thanks for sharing your story. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/10200007/Plans-for-manned-mission-to-Mars-drawn-up-by-British-team.html
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/10200818/Dangers-of-a-manned-mission-to-Mars.html

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