Exploratory – Short Story

I wrote a short story for a writing competition. It seems relevant, so I thought I’d share it here. Hope you enjoy it.Image

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The office was quiet, as it usually was this late at night. It was 10:17pm and Joseph had just received the last data transfer of the night. He checked that it wasn’t corrupted before logging off his computer. Even if it was corrupted, he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it tonight.

Joseph was a Martian Geologist. He was working with the latest Mars rover to find out what had happened to all the water that had once flowed freely on the martian surface. By now, Mars had rotated so that a signal wouldn’t reach the rover. That forced Joseph to keep to Martian time, a day that was forty minutes longer than a day on the Earth.

Leaving the building, Joseph stared up to the sky. While he was primarily interested in Mars, he enjoyed looking up at the sky for no other reason than that it was beautiful. Much the way he looked at his wife.

The drive home was uneventful. It rarely was; One of the ancillary benefits from living a day that was forty minutes longer than everyone else’s. That certainly had its drawbacks, but traffic wasn’t one of them.

While the drive was calm, Joseph’s mind was racing. He was worried about his wife. Above all he wanted her to be safe and healthy. He passed under a red traffic light, but was completely unaware.

Joseph arrived at the condo to find it nearly dark. Once he shut the door, the only light was from the streetlights in the front and a thin slit of light under the bathroom door. He approached it calmly, trying not to scare Sarah, his wife.

“Sweetheart?” he asked. “How long have you been in there?”

Silence greeted the echo of his question. If Joseph didn’t know better, he’d think Sarah wasn’t in the bathroom. He knew she was there, however. He even knew why she was in there.

“I’ll take a day off work. What would you say about taking a road trip tomorrow? My day works really well for that right now.” The door remains silent, but Joseph thinks he sees shadows across the slit of light.

“I know we can’t really afford the trip right now, since we spent it on all those in-vitro treatments. But I’ll ask for an advance from my boss. He’ll approve it, I’m sure. Don’t worry, we’ll have a good time.”

“I don’t want to go on a trip.” said Sarah. “I don’t want to leave the city. Or the condo. Or the bathroom.”

“Well that’s too bad, sweetheart.” replied Joseph. “Because, I really need to use the bathroom.” His lips curl up in a wry smile, as they tend to do when he says a clever retort. Well, when he thinks it is clever at least. Only silence greeted his smile though, as Sarah clearly didn’t agree that it was funny.

Finally the door opened and Sarah stormed off to the bedroom while glaring at Joseph. She slammed the door and a light flickered on, shedding a similar slit of light into the darkened room. Joseph sighed, then turned towards the bathroom.

At least she turned on the light tonight. Joseph thinks.

As he shuts the door he checks for what he expects to find in the bathroom. Lying on the counter, is a pregnacy test. Negative, like all the rest.

***

“Hello Joseph.” says George. “What’s new in the sky?”

Joseph had just entered the break room to find his colleagues George and Cathy chatting. They were colleagues, but they had very little in common since George was a social scientist and Cathy was an economist.

“Not much is new really.” said Joseph. “The light from the stars is all from long ago. In any case, I study mars, which is a very small part of the sky. I don’t really know what’s new in the rest of the sky.”

“Speaking of Mars, it was in the news the other day.” said Cathy.

“It might have been my project. I’m working on the latest mars rover. It landed a month ago and has been creating some headlines the last few weeks.”

“No, no.” said Cathy. “I mean, not that that’s not important. But there was another story, about a billionaire who’s funding a mission to go there. You know, the guy who was on Dancing with the Stars. Get this, he’s paying $1.6 billion dollars for this crazy idea. And the worst part, the suckers they’re going to pick aren’t even coming back. It’s a damn suicide mission. I mean, what are you supposed to do with $1.6 billion dollars if you never come back to the Earth to spend it.”

That was news to Joseph. He’d been so busy worrying about Sarah that he hadn’t heard about this project. He’d have to find out more information about it, since everyone in his office knew he was the “space” guy and he should be able to explain it to them.

“Actually, I haven’t heard of that. Though I don’t think they’d give the people going on the trip all that money. I think that’s so that it doesn’t become a suicide mission.” Joseph thought he knew where this conversation was headed, but he held his breath hoping it wouldn’t turn sour.

“You know what they should do?” said George, while Joseph’s hope faded. “They should blow up all those rockets, and stop any notion that this is even possible. I mean, think what you can do with that money down here. There’s hunger, strife and all kinds of inequalities right here, even in our country. We should fix those things before ever considering doing something like that.”

Joseph wanted to say something. He wanted to say that plenty of money was spent on all those things right now, without fixing them. He wanted to say that those children who were impacted by spending in space went on to be more productive in society, because they were inspired to do great things. He wanted to say so many things. Instead he mumbled something about having a job and made a quick getaway.

The rest of the day was a blur. His worry for his wife permeated his day. His thoughts never seemed to settle and his day ended up being very unproductive. When Joseph finally made it home, Sarah was asleep in the bed. She was restless, twitching here, kicking there. He was almost asleep beside her when her foot found his shin. It took all his concentration not to scream out in pain.

The next morning, Joseph woke to find Sarah already awake. She was heating oatmeal in the microwave and Joseph could see the bags under her eyes.

“Good morning, my love.” said Sarah.

“Good morning, Sarah.” said Joseph. “How are you feeling today?”

“I’m a bit better. Though I wanted to be in your arms to fall asleep last night.”

“I know. I wish that too. Soon enough I’ll only be leaving for work at that time, and you’ll be able to fall asleep in my arms before I go to work.”

Joseph saw a wistful look in her eyes. He knew she was imagining being in his arms.

“I thought of you yesterday.” said Sarah. A warmth spread through Joseph’s body. That is why he loved Sarah. “I saw a news report about a trip to mars. Apparently they’re sending a couple one way? You must have heard more about this.”

“Ah that.” said Joseph. “I have heard about it, though not much. Sending them one way is much cheaper, so it just makes sense.”

“But how long could they survive? What would their mission be?” said Sarah.

“It’s to establish a permanent base. They’d likely never return, but their legacy would be we’d finally have people living their entire lives somewhere other than Earth.”

“Sounds like fun, we should do it.” said Sarah. Joseph knew that tone of voice meant that she was being sarcastic. He thought about it, then realized she was actually right. They would be the perfect couple.

“Why not?” said Joseph. Sarah froze while washing a spoon from the pile of dishes. He’d have to wash those when she leaves for work. Slowly she looks at Joseph, then laughs.

“Good one, Joseph. I believed you for moment. But now that moment has passed. You have such a strange sense of humor.”

“I’m not joking, Sarah. I think it would be good for us. And we’d be a great couple for them to select.” Sarah sat down on the chair, with her mouth open. She had a concerned look on her face, and seemed to be deep in thought.

Finally, she noticed Joseph staring at her and realized her mouth was still agape. She closed it quickly.

“But what about our… problems? Wouldn’t they want someone who can create a future generation?” said Sarah.

“Actually, I don’t think that would matter too much.” said Joseph. “They’d be more concerned about sustaining a presence for the time being. Eventually, they would send others who would be better suited to have children. Besides, it’s not like we can’t have children. The doctor just said we’re unlikely to have any.”

“This is ridiculous, though.” said Sarah. “What are we supposed to do? Uproot ourselves? Leave all our friends? Change our whole lives?”

“Well, yes. Like I said, we’re probably better suited for that than anyone else. We’re both only children and our parents are gone. We don’t have any family that’s keeping us here. Besides, you’re always complaining about me being on Martian time. Instead of me finding a way to switch back to Earth time, why don’t you join me?” said Joseph.

Sarah sat stunned. Joseph was scared that he had pushed too far. He knew she was in a fragile state. Would he be the cause of her insanity? Could he live with that? Of course he could, he would always be there for her. He pulled that thought from his mind immediately.

Finally, she just shook her head… and smiled. Joseph was amazed. It was a small smile. It barely touched her face, but there it was. He hadn’t seen it in years.

“Well, I don’t know.” said Sarah. “I need to leave for work, we can talk tomorrow. Have a good day, my Martian.”

Joseph kissed her briefly, before she left. He was still stunned. He thought it might be a good idea. But how had it changed her so dramatically? He’d never anticipated that. He considered his wife’s reaction as he finished his breakfast, then did the dishes.

***

The rest of the week, Joseph researched what the trip would entail. He was coming to realize that Sarah and himself would be ideal for this trip, to the point that they were likely going to be selected, if they decided to apply. Since they were going to stay on Mars, most people would never consider applying.

Throughout the next weeks, he would arrive at work, do his job in silence and leave. Never did he mention this to any of his colleagues. Most would be troubled by his decision to pursue this crazy idea, but he knew this was the right decision.

Joseph was heading home later that week, which happened to be early in the morning. As he stepped out the door, George caught him in his gaze and strode straight for him.

“Can you believe they’re still talking about this crazy Mars trip?” said George. “I saw it on the news again. This time they were complaining that there weren’t enough candidates. I mean, can anyone blame people for not applying? It’s a crazy idea, that should never fly. How could anyone be suckered into this scheme?”

“Some people just want to go, George.” said Joseph. “And as crazy as it sounds, in the end it will be better for you, too.”

“Yeah, it will be better for me not having lunatics who are crazy enough to do stuff like that on this planet.”

“You mean having people who want to find out about the universe? Who want to teach your children to expand their horizons? To be good people and explore their world?” said Joseph.

George looked at Joseph with a puzzled expression. Perhaps it was too much to expect George to understand. Instead of trying to explain more, Joseph walked to his car without another word.

***

Joseph awoke to the smell of a sizzling steak. He stepped out the bedroom door and walked to the kitchen to find Sarah busy preparing supper for the two of them. Joseph would often talk to other Martian scientists, only a few in the country, about living on a different clock. Some had trouble eating supper when they woke up, and would need to eat cereal or some type of breakfast. Not Joseph. Steak was just fine with him.

“You seem well. You’ve had a good day?” said Joseph.

“I have, my love.” said Sarah. “I stopped at the store to pick up some fresh vegetables.” She gave Joseph a sly look before turning back to cooking. He knew that meant she would ask a probing question about going to Mars. She knew he’d been researching it, and she’d taken to asking questions whenever she could. Joseph knew that meant Sarah still wasn’t sure about going.

“How would we get fresh vegetables? Would they be frozen from Earth?” said Sarah.

“At first they’d be frozen, then we’d grow our own. In fact, that would be part of our job. Learning how to grow enough vegetables for ourselves. Then we’d need to set up a facility to accommodate more people.”

“So we’d be like housekeepers?” said Sarah. She squished her nose up, like she does when she doesn’t like what she’s hearing.

“Not quite. We’d be pioneers. The first people to live on Mars. We’d be doing the stuff that no one has ever done. Our stories would become household legends, like the pilgrims.” said Joseph. Sarah nodded slightly and smiled.

“I’m guessing those households would be on Mars, though.” said Sarah.

“Yes, isn’t that part of the allure?” said Joseph. He smiled his most sincere smile. “We don’t have to do this, though. It’s only if you want. I’m just thinking it would be good for us.”

Sarah sat there quietly, deep in thought. Joseph dug into his plate of food. While she’d been feeling sad the last few years, she hadn’t been cooking as often. He’d missed that. It had felt like she was missing a piece of herself. A piece that Joseph had particularly cherished. He wanted to help her find it.

“Alright.” said Sarah. It was such a low sound that Joseph could barely hear it.

“Pardon?” said Joseph.

“Let’s tell them we want to go to Mars.” said Sarah. She was looking straight at Joseph with eyes burning with passion and excitement. She smiled at Joseph and he couldn’t help but smile back.

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