Sebastian Graves long ago abandoned his one dream, his one fervent ambition, for the security of a mundane job and the normalcy of adult life. But when he's offered a chance to trade-in his safe and stolid existence for another shot at the impossible, how could he possibly say no?
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you would have signed your life away for it? Not just metaphorically; I'm talking the whole inked-in-blood deal-with-the-devil here. No escape clause, no refunds. Just a one-way rocket to the stars fuelled by the tears of those left behind.
Well, I did. And now the pen's in my hand, the dotted line beckoning with a broken grin.
“So, Mr Graves. Do we have a deal?”
I looked up at Mr All-Smiles sitting on the other side of the desk. He couldn't be much older than me, maybe 30, 32, yet here he was, working for unquestionably the greatest organisation on Earth, launching humanity into its next revolutionary era. And what had I accomplished? Eight years of staring at a computer screen, calculating taxes and collating interest rates. Real history-book stuff.
With a sigh, I put down the pen and slid the contract back across the desk.
Signed and dated.
I sat on the edge of my porch—sorry, the Administration's porch now—and watched the removalists dump box after box of my former possessions into the back of their truck.
“Hey, easy with that! First editions are fragile.”
One of the burly removalists shot me a sneer.
“They're just books, buddy. Besides, it ain't your problem anymore.”
A retort alit the tip of my tongue, but I bit it back. He was right. Those books may have been worth more than he would make in a lifetime, but they weren't mine to care for any more. Gibson, Heinlein, Asimov: they would adorn somebody else's shelves by the morrow.
I'm not going to lie: letting go of the books hurt more than all the photo albums, milestone gifts, and family heirlooms combined. I could still recall vividly my first encounter with each and every one of those transformative sci-fi tales, the memories frozen in my mind like a Neanderthal perfectly preserved in a block of ice.
Pedalling my bike from garage sale to garage sale, digging through piles of old National Geographics and half-completed colouring books for a glimpse of stars and a whiff of musty paper. Nothing, nothing could compare to the rich, pulpy aroma of a well-read book.
And then years later, co-opting dad into driving me halfway across the state to scope out the cornucopia of quaint second-hand bookshops hidden in the boonies. Wow, I'd actually forgotten about that. Mum and dad had sacrificed a lot for my dream back then. I wonder what they really thought when I took the job at Barnes and Associates. Sure, they'd been as champed about the money as I had, but they'd never broached the topic of my abandoned Astrophysics degree. Huh. Well, it was bound to come up when I broke the news to them. That was promising to be one miserable conversation, though doubtless the one with Laurie would be even worse. God, Laurie. Maybe I could just leave and let her think I'd fallen off a cliff or something...
No. That's the kind of thing that would fester into a deathbed regret. Besides, she'd discover the truth one way or another. Best to just own my decision and leave us both with a sense of closure.
She'd understand. She'd have to understand. An opportunity like this wasn't just a once-in-a-lifetime thing; this was a first for the whole of human history. How could I have said no?
“Why didn't you just say no?” screamed Laurie, flailing her hands and spilling her untouched cocktail over her similarly untouched meal. So much for plying her with food and drink.
I knocked back a mouthful of my own Dutch courage, ignoring the pointed stares of the diners around us.
“Because my whole life has been building to this moment. You've seen my house.” I winced with the memory of empty walls and cardboard boxes. “You know the kind of geek I am. Aren't you the least bit happy for me?”
“Happy for you? What about us? Doesn't this relationship mean anything to you?”
I bit my lip. Here comes the hard part.
“Well, we'd never really talked about where this was going, so I sort of assumed you didn't think it that serious—”
“Not that serious?!” she cried. More heads wheeled in our direction. “You're a moron, you know that? I introduced you to my parents; do you think I'm so easy that I do that with every guy I meet?”
“N-no, of course not, but—”
“I've been marking houses in the property guide and scraping by on half-pay so we could afford a deposit. And now you're telling me that's all been one colossal waste of time?”
“You never mentioned moving in together!” I threw my arms out and nearly sent my own pint tumbling to the floor.
“I shouldn't have needed to! Relationships are supposed to be about knowing what the other person is thinking without having to explicitly state it!”
“I- Wha- Huh-”
I gave up and splayed my hands. I'll never understand female logic.
Laurie closed her eyes and pressed the heel of her palm to her forehead.
“Why would you even consider this? Throwing away a steady, secure career, turning your back on everyone who cares about you, who loves you. And all for what? A tiny prison surrounded by a world of dead desert? I know all your books paint this romanticised picture of space, but that's all fiction. Real space is cold, lonely, empty—”
“How do you know?” I slapped my palms down on the table, knocking my fork to the floor. My shoulders quivered, and I almost leaped to my feet. “Nobody knows what it's really like out there. Our knowledge is still so undeveloped, anything could be possible. Doesn't that excite you?”
I could feel the flames roaring behind my eyes.
“Wouldn't you want to be the first human to find alien life, hidden down in the catacombs beneath the sandy surface? Or to seed greenery across all that red, giving birth to crops that could never exist here on Earth? Or name a new constellation visible only from Mars' more expansive orbit?”
“Sure, or you could be the first human to die from some exotic new Martian disease. Or be brutally murdered by those aliens you're so keen on.”
I shook my head and stared down at my plate of cold Porterhouse. Why couldn't she see how important this was to me?
“Laurie,” I said, without looking up. “I've dreamt about this moment my entire life. This is my chance to contribute, really contribute to the world of tomorrow, to finally do something meaningful with my life. I don't want my tombstone to read Sebastian Graves: He sure knew how to tax 'em.”
Silence spilled over our table. All around me, the clinking of cutlery and the buzz of conversation spoke of contented couples leading simple, yet ultimately trivial lives. Laurie might have been happy to share their blissful banality, but my ambition could not be so easily caged.
“This can't be legal,” said Laurie, after the hollow silence had dragged on for a full minute. Her voice sounded weaker now, like a ghost speaking over a faulty phone line. “You're no Buzz Lightyear.”
“Aldrin,” I mumbled. Couldn't help it. She ignored me anyway.
“You've had no training, no education. For Christ's sake, Seb, you didn't even make it through university!”
My hands clenched into fists, and I gritted my teeth.
“Look, the base up there is all automated, and there are teams of engineers and astrophysicists on hand to deal with the technical stuff. What they need now is regular people to turn it from a habitat into a home. Establish a sense of community and culture and all that.”
Laurie glared at me with the same disbelief she had given my shelf of hand-painted model starships. Models, Laurie, not toys.
“And what if something happens during the trip? You said it yourself: this whole space travel thing is still so new and undeveloped; it's not meant for laypeople like us yet!”
Laypeople like you, maybe, I thought.
“Nothing's going to happen. This is the seventh manned trip up there, and there hasn't been a single glitch the entire time. Not one. I'm more likely to drop dead of a heart attack climbing all those stairs up the side of the shuttle.”
“Don't say that!” Laurie's voice cracked like a slightly out-of-tune radio. I leaned forward, ducking beneath her bowed head. Was she... Was she crying?
I reached out and touched her shoulder. “Laurie, I—”
As if my hand had been made of fire, she flinched away and leaped off her stool, fleeing for the exit with her head buried in her hands. She never looked back.
“Martians, dude! Martians! You can totally be the first guy to hook up with a Martian chick!”
Gary's eyes blazed like stars going supernova. I couldn't help but grin. Now this was more like it.
“And get this,” I said. “Gravity on Mars is only 38% of what it is here on Earth. That means I'll be 50 kilos lighter up there.” I slapped my fledgling beer gut. “Well, when I'm outside the habitat, anyway.”
“Cor! You're one lucky bastard, Seb. What did it set you back, if you don't mind me asking?”
My grin deflated.
“Well, everything. Had to sign over the house, the car, pretty much all my possessions. They raided my super, too.”
Gary baulked, his face like he had just mistaken a urinal cake for a crumpet.
“It's not like I could take any of it with me. There's going to be barely enough room in the shuttle as it is; supplies for the trip, extra building materials for the base, plus it's a two-person shuttle, so I'll be battling for every square centimetre of breathing space with some disinherited rich kid or at best another pseudo-geek like me. Thank god for cryosleep, aye?”
Leaning forward, Gary punched me playfully in the shoulder.
“Dude, you're making it sound like you're sailing into the sun. We can still chat on vid-link once you're there. The lag will suck, but hey, you'll still be able to bask in my chiseled good looks.”
He cocked his chin and struck a vain, catwalk pose. I laughed and shoved him back.
“You're a nutter, Gary.” I swung around to the bar. “Another round?”
Gary twirled around on his stool.
“You bet. Gotta lubricate you good and proper so you never forget what a true brew tastes like.”
He waved down the bartender and nudged me with his elbow.
“I hear that Martian beer is dry as dust.”
Mum and dad took the news exactly as I should have, but didn't, expect.
“Oh, we're so proud of you, sweetie!”
Mum engulfed me in a lung-crushing hug. When she stepped back, I could see the tears distorting her eyes. There was sadness there, but not the kind Laurie had shown.
“Congratulations son. You've made your old man happier than you could imagine.” Dad slapped me on the back so hard I stumbled forward. “You know we always have, and always will support you in everything you do. But when you dropped out of university, well...”
He rolled his lips and stared off into the distance. Mum sidled up and slipped her arm around his back.
“What your father's trying to say is: we love you. And we want you to do whatever makes you happy.”
“Well, there's no question about that,” I said. Mum lowered her eyebrow and skewered me with her tantrum-foiling stare.
Dammit. I forgot mum could always see through my lies.
When D-day finally rolled around, I had a full fleet to see me off: mum and dad, the guys from work, a couple of old school friends—but no Laurie, of course. I guess I shouldn't have expected any different. Broken hearts heal slow, if ever. Still, I can't help but search for her smile amongst the crowd, hearing my heart ring hollow each time my eyes return empty.
I hugged my parents—the last time I ever would—and stared without blinking until their faces were permanently burned into my retinas. The last souvenir of my life on Earth.
My space-bound comrade stood off to one side, fully suited and tapping his foot impatiently. I wrapped up my fond farewells. The gaggle of station hands helped me into my own spacesuit, and we ascended the towering mesh staircase to the shuttle's cockpit.
Amidst a miniature galaxy of lights and dials and flashing screens, we strapped in and awaited the countdown. The Administration had run me through the simulator dozens of times, and it wasn't like we actually had to do anything until the shuttle broke orbit and we entered our cryosleep chambers, but I still felt a hailstorm of needle-sharp icicles bombarding my stomach. Starting from now, everything would be unknown, unfamiliar; I was a child again, seeing everything for the first time.
I gazed out the panoramic observation window as space coalesced before us. Blue sky gave way to the endless black. Satin stars twinkled like celestial fruit, begging to be plucked from their velvet canvas for a taste of divine bliss.
Entranced, I ogled the bejewelled vista with a slack jaw and a skipping heart. Still, though, one thought swirled like a noxious nebula in the back of my mind.
I wish I had someone to share this with.
A steady tone echoed through the shuttle. We'd escaped the atmosphere. Time to shed our suits and settle in for the long sleep.
I unstrapped from my seat and began to remove my helmet. My comrade did the same, though oddly left his helmet until last. Realising I'd never even learned the name of my months-long travelling companion, I prepared to introduce myself.
When her helmet came off, though, I found there was no need.