The clock on the dresser had five minutes left before the click of the alarm would ring in the vessel’s arrival. The gentle reverberations from the ship’s engine hummed, keeping her crew snuggled in their respective cabins. In the next five minutes, a popular track from the twentieth century will begin its opening guitar riff before launching into early rock n’ roll vocals expressing the desire for one Beethoven to roll over. In this same cabin, a man stares at the orange neon numbers and eagerly awaits the familiar lyrics, not for the comfort that comes with routine but for the answer to the question humans have been asking one another since the early inception of long-distance travel: are we there yet?
The lily white carpeting plushes between his calloused toes as he makes his way to the window. The shutters buzz open, and in the nearing distance a planet hangs on the vast nothingness, its properties only recently understood and harnessed. Wrapped in the star spangled blanket of the cosmos, the ship begins its deceleration; another hum masks the former, not in decibels so much as in sensation. The air becomes still, rigid—locked in a state of perpetual and unbreakable timelessness. The window frame shapes the planet into a kind of portraiture; though rotating at phenomenal speeds it moves no faster than the waters and shrubbery of any canvassed landscape. The leaves of Life’s greenery had fallen decades before his arrival to the now flourishing colony below. Blue seas pushed red sands back into the various pockmarks which were once all that had made up the fourth world of the system Sol.
Before the onboard AI had a chance to formally address her now stirring crew with all the docility a constructed inflection could offer, the fanciful voyage is heaved back to the backseat of a station wagon—a boy’s garbled voice pleads to pullover. And before his mother is able to open his door, he vomits out the window where only half of his burden is expelled. The more she rubs his back to comfort him, the harder it becomes to keep her face jerked in such a way as to hold back incoming waves of disenchantment; her fingertips trace the notches of his spine, counting the ways in which modern medical science has failed her ailing son. The treatments aren’t working. With each passing week, this became harder to admit to herself and easier for her son to continue his celestial excursions. He needed to get back, he needed to be with his team, he needed to know the reason for their being assembled so urgently; more did he have to tell of the USS Columbus II and her inquisitively charged band of frontiersmen.
“We’re almost to the hospital,” the coarse voice at his ear tells him, the lump in her throat making her otherwise maternal tone scrape like her rubber soles against the gravel outside.
He agrees with his mother and affirms, “The mission gets done no matter what.”
Unable to pull her lips out to a smile for her imaginative bundle of paled innocence, she takes in a stuttered breath of the wintered air into her lungs, frosting over whatever warmth was still left in her from the insolated womb of the two bedroom single story patio home that was now five miles behind them. Knowing there would have to be more stops made, she presses her chapped mouth against her son’s forehead, too withered to even provide the mild suction that would otherwise classify the action as a kiss. She steadies him back into the car and the shine of his azure eyes slides its way through to the shimmering darkness kept at bay by a pane of glass and billions of miles of cosmic inaccessibility.
“So hot in this car.” The boy writhes in his fluffed parka, each layer of the clothing beneath it knotting themselves around his shoulders and squeezing at his ribs with every breath.
“D’you want me to turn the heater off?,” his mother asks.
Finally giving in to his polyester entanglement, the boy takes in a drag of the stuffy air only to release it as an even warmer jet of defeat, “No.”
“But you’re sweating!” She forks the remaining red tufts away from his forehead, its temperature sending pulses of motherly concern throughout her body. He reminds her of the fact that he sweats even when it’s cold which sends her arms to the jacket’s zipper so fast it seemed as though they had been waiting on it. Waiting all these past months. Waiting for some indication of hopelessness in his otherwise elusive words.
“The ship gets cold quick,” the boy says.
His mother knew of his daydreams and she had done her best these past months not to join him. She had done her best to be his anchor to the reality of things. But over time, she allowed him to sail further out into the blackened seas of his fantasies. While she knew her son took comfort in the immersion, every day she worried how much slack it would take before he disappeared entirely into the wonder of the cosmos.
And to her surprise, she felt words forming on her lips that seemed to carry with them the answers as to why she found herself crying within the confines of her bedroom every night, “I wish your father was still here.”
Her son looks at her with an expression normally reserved for those with genuine curiosity, “Where’d he go?”
Was it too late now? Had he drifted too far out? In providing him with visions of the future, had his daydreams swallowed up his past? Or was this the work of his toxic blood? Or the toxins being used to combat it? She needed answers, something concrete, something that wouldn’t crumble to dust between her fingers.
Lazily swinging his neck over to the window opposite his seat, the boy looks out into the safety of the night sky, “I need to get back.”
“Of course,” his mother says as she lays him back down into the backseat, “I’ll tell the crew not to worry.”
“Tell them to keep the site secured.”
“Of course, baby.” She gently closes his door as though a loud enough sound might keep him from entering his meditative bliss.
“And don’t let the Captain take over,” her son adds, unaware his mother is still in the process of returning to the driver’s seat. Just as she grips the handle, she takes a moment to assess how much grit was left in her voice before it fragmented into indiscernible utterances of a broken soul—would it be enough to carry on a disheartening exchange with Doctor Burgess?
An anxiety was pushing itself out from the back of her head, a familiar vagrant which would normally be quelled by a pack of Luxury ultra lights. It had been a couple of months since her last cigarette but the click of the door handle was enough to bring her back to the flick of her sister’s lighter. She sat in one of the plastic chairs in the backyard but Mattie was standing and on some level, it bothered her when her sister continually rejected her motions to the other chair.
“Why can’t you ever just sit the hell down?” She asked her sister.
“Because I know it gets to you when I don’t,” Mattie said, to which Donna briefly lifted her middle finger just before plucking the cigarette from her lips.
“Always the vulgar one.”
“Only when I’m around you, love,” Donna said as Mattie had already begun to bring her chair in closer. She plopped her small frame on the worn out plastic seat, plump with her modest proportions and for a reason that could only be understood between the two sisters, she began to laugh. Bringing her opposite hand up to choke back her hysterics, Mattie could see past the blurriness of her tears that Donna had also began to laugh. After a short while, the volume of their shared amusement lowered to tired chuckles and yuks.
“I don’t know how we managed not to kill each other.”
“Not worth the time,” Donna had snarked.
“Yeah. I don’t really see you as head bitch of the prison yard.”
“And you’d probably be stabbed for being a card cheat.”
“No. Early parole for good behavior,” Mattie grinned. A gradual pause had fallen on the night, the wind tickling their ears being the only sound. Hissing. Whispering. Swirling.
“Wish you still lived close by.”
“I know. Judah loves his new job though. And if things keep going the way they are, it looks like we’ll finally have enough money for the wedding,” Mattie pulled her face up with the hint of a smile.
“Six years, right?”
“Yeah. Almost seven now.”
“Most people don’t get to say that.”
“Most people are already married.”
“No. Most people are alone.”
“You’re not alone.”
Mattie looked up to see her nephew’s window slightly open, the evening breeze cooling his night sweats and hopefully just loud enough to warble his mother’s cynicism.
“He’s being treated now. It’s always hell the first time. Do you remember Uncle Ricky?
“He never did quit the sticks, did he?
“Told us never to start.”
“Still. He made it. He was around.”
“Said Andersons don’t die easy. Stubborn as the brow of a bull.”
“Always pissing Mom off. Hey,” Mattie’s voice trying to reel her sister’s attention back in, “Remember what she said at the funeral?”
“Didn’t say a word the whole time,” Donna let her elbows slump onto her knees.
“Not until we got back in the car. Remember? She pulled out a tissue and mumbled, ‘I’m gonna miss that sonnuvabitch.’”
Donna’s shoulders finally gave into the weight of her building tears, nearly lighting her hair on fire as she rested her forehead against open palms.
“Jesus, Donna!”, Mattie swatted at her sister’s brunette curls.
“Never even wanted a kid, Tee,” even though she had overcome her childhood stutter many years before, she never let go of the ease that came with that simple flex of the tongue just as she never told her son of his undesired origins. But she felt as though if she had that he would come back. If she could tell him in that moment, when he opened his beady eyes and cried them closed against this cold and uncertain existence, she had never felt such a jolt of love that could change a person’s entire worldview. A love that strokes the heart and drowns the soul with its terrifying possibilities. A love that cares for someone’s well-being and doesn’t care as to the nature of their being—a mother’s love.
“Hey, hey,” Mattie’s hands gently knead into Donna’s bony shoulders, her palms the only thing keeping her sister’s soft rigid joints in place. “Listen, you can always trust that I’ll be here when you need me. When he needs me. But that doubt… That lump you get in your throat when he looks at you. There’s always a time and a place for those feelings; just make sure he’s nowhere near,” Mattie’s hands now pat her shoulders to illustrate the stamp of older sibling authority.
“You know that thing people do?,” Donna cleared her throat before elaborating, “Where they make a list of how shitty their life is and when they reach the end, they pack it all back inside with something that keeps them going? Makes it all worthwhile? He’s mine. And then he won’t be. And then I’ll be like an old sofa with the worn-in cushions; ass prints of the only people who’ve ever mattered.”
Donna’s post-cry sniffling had finally come to a dry whistle, her elbows lifting her body up just enough to catch the mud scuffs of her sister’s dress shoes, “There’s never enough time.”
And before her mind could linger longer on those passing words, the rusted screech of the car door pinched her back from her darkening psyche. The warmth of her grip tightens the cold leather of the steering wheel and then the strangest thing—the boy was reminded of boots; the streamlined tautness of it, the leg enveloping command of it. His toes vibrated in the tips of these boots as the station wagon coughed to a start. He knew he would be back on the ship soon. It was just a matter of time, his chest becoming ever warmer with anticipation. Managing his left arm out of his jacket, he pulls the right sleeve off of in his seat to reveal a freshly laundered lab coat with an identification tag and assumes the world of his alter ego, Project Director Sara Madison. And just like that, she knew she was back.
There were whispers abound as to why such a large assembly of experts from various disciplines would be spirited to a single location. Some had taken to several pools, the leading one involving some kind of “Ancient Martian Discovery.” Project Director Madison couldn’t believe such tomfoolery would arise from her colleagues but she took minor pleasure in imagining the cloud of disappointment that would fall over the room as the gamblers realized how much lighter their wallets would hang in their pockets. Tucking her pants properly back into her boots, straightening out her otherwise impeccably formal blouse and giving the frame of her glasses a brief tilt so as to be certain of their alignment, she made her way onto the main floor. “The origins of humanity,” she gave a pause of absolute authority, the jovial camaraderie of the room dulling to quickened hushes. The room was immense, even with its capacity being occupied by over a thousand souls it still seemed to make ants of them all. “Have always been steeped in mystery and controversy. During the mid 21st century, there was, of course, a resurgence of interest on the subject once again with the 2nd Space Race. I cannot stress the significance of your being here because within the last 72 hours, a discovery was made which may hold the promise of an answer to our most titillating of enigmas: Where are all the little green men?” The educated chuckles which followed came to a gentle swell before crashing into the remainder of her address. “As it drifted into our system, the object had been identified as a satellite. A very old satellite. Our data puts it back to a time when mammals were taking their first steps on land. So, we can definitively say that it is not one of ours,” like a tumble weed passing through, another dry scoff of laughter seemed to drift into the room and then out again. “So, with this conclusion already in place, you may be wondering why we have assembled you here so urgently.”
“I’m sure they’re just happy to know we’re not the only ones stumbling around trying to find our dicks in the dark,” the Captain seemed to form within the crowd as they moved away from him, forming a spotlight of dissociation.
“And personally, I’ve had my fill of you all; time to greet the neighbors!”
“If only. You see, despite the Captain’s enthusiasm, the object is very much defunct. Upon its discovery, it was quickly intercepted and brought to this facility where we were able to discern that it is no longer transmitting back to its point of origin. And while it is in somewhat impeccable condition for having been subjected to the harsh conditions of space, it is quite apparent that it sustained enough damage during its voyage to explain away its inactivity.”
“Not everything,” the Captain’s salt & pepper beard grumbled.
“You’re not telling them everything,” Project Director Madison’s eyes glared from out of their square frames; the Captain’s own creased in satisfaction with her disapproval.
“Folks, this is how it is. In actuality, the original intention was to send the damn thing back to the Company but there were some complications made by the fact that it seemed to be repelled by Earth’s gravity well. So, that explains why it was brought to Mars and why we were all pulled from the warmth of our own beds.”
“There is nothing to suggest that any kind of systematic intelligence is at work here. This could simply be characteristic of its physical design, like a cat’s innate ability to orient itself as it falls.”
The Captain’s beard let out a skeptical grunt, “Well, I just thought this was worthy of note as this next part, folks, is quite important because it explains why this may be characteristic of its physical design.”
“The function of this particular satellite doesn’t seem to deal in surveillance as those of our own. It seems that the intention of its engineers was to allow this object to wander for as long as possible. Capsules appear to have once adorned its sides; a probe consisting of projectiles in a sense. Where they were once fastened, we can see decorative line work which may have once ran around the entire craft. So, with all of this in mind, we theorize that it may have held some kind of social significance to them.”
The room was now lively with activity; swirls of speculative mutterings were well on their way to blowing the roof off the building. “How exactly were you able to discern the existence of these capsules?” a man’s voice was able to pierce through the crowd.
And then, much to their dismay over their alignment, Project Director Madison and the Captain answered in unison, “There’s one left.”
“There’s one left,” Donna’s voice provided reassurance as she gave her son the final painkiller.
There were other voices in the car with him; two of them had gently lifted him onto a wheelchair. The place was white and blinding in its sterility; all around the boy could hear odd mixtures of sound. Of both depression and celebration: heart monitors playing a single note, sneakers squeaking down hallways with urgency, curtains sliding, women screaming, babies crying, men cheering and then only the silence of his own room as he and his mother waited for Doctor Burgess. He was between worlds. In one ear he could still hear the jumbled excitement of the revelation of the ancient satellite. Yet in the other, he could hear his mother humming “Johnny B. Goode” comfortingly into his shoulder, holding him in her arms as a knock at the door made its way in. This voice was familiar in its greeting, and its handshake was as strong as ever, “We hanging in there, kiddo?”
And when the boy opened his eyes as best he could manage, he was able to see the Captain’s face, gleaming with sarcasm. The crowd was gone. In a lighted hallway of the facility, they stood in front of one another. Project Director Madison was furious with his blissful indifference towards the entirety of the situation.
“Go on, say it again only slower,” he mocked.
She could feel her fists insisting they be involved in the exchange, “Directed Panspermia”—the captain chuckled once again.
“Is the most viable theory we have for this fucking thing. Try not to let your adolescent fixation for bodily fluids cloud your judgment,” her voice developing a distinct crustiness indicative of anger. The Captain shoots back something about while her Company may be funding the project, she should try not to let that cloud the fact that the Columbus is his company’s ship, a fact that would be in both their best interests to remember. As she turns away, a quick whistle reels her head back to him: “By the way, the boys in linguistics sent this.” He hands her a thickened manila folder.
“That, ‘decorative line work’ I think you called it, turned out to be writing. I strongly suggest you give it a look, Sara,” winking through the tufts of his eyebrows before brushing past her, hands in both pockets, boots aimed outward with each stride taken. And then, like a dream or something just as illusive, he vanished in the distance of the whitened hall.
White. The walls of his room were so white the boy could only form loose silhouettes of Dr. Burgess and his mother. “I think you should have a look for yourself, Mrs. Anderson.” The dark blot with longer hair held still for the longest time before she eventually reached for what the other was offering her.
The folder was heavy and rich with its meticulous samplings, recordings and calculations but what was most important was a single page jutting out of the top, as though the Captain had purposefully bookmarked it for her.
The long haired blot opened the folder as the other began to ramble of things that seemed like nothing more than verbal mush. A sharp gasp sucks all words out of the room. And then, perhaps, the twinkle of tears.
There, at the very bottom of this page, floating with an almost angelic glow were the most beautiful words Sara Madison knows she will ever read in her lifetime.
On the cusp of death, we found hope. May this world find it too.
Jack Delacruz is a creative writer in attendance at SFSU. He’s had the added honor of being an instructional aide in his second semester and the experience has left him with a strong interest in teaching. When not running about causing general acts of chaos and kindness, he likes to sit and write down all the madness that clunks around his soiled noggin. His inspirations include William Golding, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.