“My gums are bleeding,” I’d told Caroline during our third month free of Polyxena’s clutches. “I’ve got bruises in places I have no memory of bumping. My ankles and knees are sore. I’m just saying.”
“That does sound a lot like scurvy,” she said, massaging the stump of her pinky finger, a habit strikingly similar to one of my own. “But it can’t be; you’re the only one with symptoms.”
“Ask,” I implored. “Just ask. Maybe nobody’s said anything, but that doesn’t mean they’re not getting sick too.”
“I’ll do that. I’ll also test the supplements just to be sure. But I wouldn’t rule out other causes, including ones we’ve never seen before.”
“Are you implying…?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out.”
My stomach tightened around the problem for the rest of the day, as though I’d swallowed something I couldn’t digest. Neither possibility appealed to me. Either the entire crew would break down at the cellular level and the ship would return to Earth a tomb, or I was doomed to spent the rest of my life in isolation. The first scenario was at least solvable – we could modify our food crops or even the digester to supply us with enough vitamin C to survive the trip. The second…well, I suppose the only thing worth doing with my life would be to go back to Ilion and stay there, if they’d let me.
I hadn’t considered this.
I thought I knew fear. Fear is the oppressive stillness of the bottom of a lake. It’s the ripple of a current that can only mean one thing in that sort of environment. Fear is losing control of the shuttle, being buried alive. It presses on you like the force of a rocket launch, but like all things it will pass. You either survive the moment, or you don’t.
I was wrong. Fear is a single tooth clasped in the palm of your hand.
I grabbed a thermos of hot chocolate on the way to the lab and hooked it to my belt. Caroline would be in there, I knew, even at this late hour. She was never anywhere else. To her credit, she wasn’t slaving away at the bench tonight, but lying in the infirmary bed, computer propped on the armrest, settling down for a well-deserved night of sleep.
“What have you got?” I asked. The usual question.
“I’ve been looking into immunotherapies. I found one that sounds promising; it’s been in use a long time and has a good track record. But it uses Listeria monocytogenes.”
“Listeria. Food poisoning.”
“Ah.” The question didn’t need asking, but I asked it anyway. “And what are our chances of finding that on the ship?”
“If Biosafety did their jobs, nil.”
I tried not to let my disappointment show. For the last few weeks, Caroline had scoured Medabase for a treatment that could be synthesized in situ and wouldn’t poison the well, so to speak, and sicken the entire crew. It was a strange alchemy of the modern era. She’d made it her mission, but it wasn’t normal for doctors to have to worry about where their drugs came from. The work she was doing for me was probably beyond her abilities. There were times, usually on my worst days, when I’d begged her to accept that reality and move on.
Caroline folded her laptop. “And what have you got?”
The chocolate. I’d forgotten about it. I unclipped it from my belt and set it on the armrest.
“Thank you,” she said gently. “But that’s not what I meant.”
Slowly, I opened my hand.
I thought I’d feel better with the feeding tube out, but an eruption of white-hot bile took its place. I spat into a cup. It was plastic but felt like lead. My whole body was lead.
“Are we heavy today?” I rasped.
“What’s our g’s?” I usually had the week’s thrust profile memorized, but it was the last thing on my mind that day.
Caroline looked at her watch. “1.3”
“Shame,” I said, eyes on one of the many computer screens mounted to the bulkhead. It was all black save for a bright point of light just right of center. Our Sun. It provided no useful data, but I kept it on always, even at night. “I would have liked to take my first steps on Earth…well, myself. Instead of someone else taking them for me, you know what I mean?”
“I get it. This, right here, this is the worst of it I think, for the rest of the trip. I can’t speak of what the doctors on Earth have planned for you. There’s still time to get you up to strength, and…” Caroline leaned on my armrest, tapping a rhythm with her fingers, searching for the right words. The clack-clack-clack of crude prosthetics brought forth an old memory. A biting wind, radio static, an improvised sledge, Nemo and I pulling her through the snow, both of us delerious from lack of sleep. I’ve seen people survive worse, she’d said in the tunnel leading into camp. Go to sleep. I’ll take care of myself from here.
“And if you can’t do it on your own,” she said at last, “I’ll be more than happy to return the favor.”
“That’s sweet, but this isn’t just a sentimental thing. The public can’t know about this.”
“That is your choice.”
“No, it’s more than that. The program will die without funding, and nobody with a heart will keep funding a program that routinely kills its people. Now imagine if humanity is a brain, and it decided one day to stop learning things because a few of its brain cells died one time.”
As you can see it is raining quite hard on the landing strip as the crew makes their exit. That’s Ostrovsky and Irwin in the front, just emerging from the fogger. Behind him, Hovsepian is shaking hands with Michiko Ito of Ilion International, fully suited as a precaution against extraterrestrial agents. The two stepping out just now are Carellos and Mercer – careful! A bit of a stumble; adjusting to gravity, no doubt, after spending some time in orbit. We’ll be seeing more of that from the remainder of the crew, who, again, remain aboard Odyssey to perform additional duties.
“Hey, it’s Erin, just checking in. Are they treating you okay?”
I was on the line with Yuzo. On the way home, he and I had often speculated on what his quarantine status would be once on the ground. He’d been “accutely exposed” to alien materials in almost exactly the same manner I had been on my first mission, and my reception hadn’t been pleasant or polite. I’d been shuffled from one sterile room to another like some kind of lab rat, and when I finally earned my freedom, it was with terms and conditions. I wouldn’t wish that fate on any of my crewmates, least of all Yuzo, who was looking forward to traveling the world to present his research.
His response was welcome, if unexpected. “Would you believe it – I’ve been cleared.”
“Like, cleared cleared? All the way?”
“Yup. For the first week they took every kind of bodily fluid conceivable, and then some. And then they came back, two weeks later. I braced myself for another round of poking and prodding but they were just – ‘You’re negative. You’re free to go.’ And I was floored. I didn’t leave the trailer for two days because I was certain I’d dreamed the whole thing, or there’d been a mistake or something.”
“Three weeks! That’s barely longer than the rest of us.”
“Yeah. I finally asked one of the guys and he told me there were laws protecting people like us. That anyone waiting on medical tests and being held against their will contingent on results, to quote, jumps in line ahead of everyone else. And there’s more to it, if you look into it. It’s like the law was written with us in mind. Really, you should look it up; it’s called Beringer’s Law…”
It took every ounce of self control to remain casual as I bid my ex-crewmate farewell. Heart pounding, hands shaking, I fumbled with my key fob and ten minutes later a company vehicle pulled up to take me to Jo Beringer’s house.
“I tried. I really did.”
I didn’t doubt it. The evidence was right in front of me. Two girls, no older than twelve, were doing homework at the kitchen table. The older of the two was sitting awkwardly, I couldn’t help but notice, like she didn’t trust the chair to hold her weight.
“The chairs!” I said, forgetting for a moment why I’d come. Forgetting, in fact, that I’d ever left. Such was the power of Jo. “I can’t believe you still have those damned folding chairs.”
“It didn’t work out, and it was largely my fault,” she went on, ignoring my moment of surprise. “I got caught up in a lawsuit, that I set in motion, that was mostly centered on you. If I was him I would have left too. I would have left sooner.”
I took a seat on the couch, listening, piecing together the last fifteen years of Jo’s life as best as I could.
“He had the patience of a saint,” she said.
For the next hour, we talked as old friends. In the meantime, I took in what my eye could see. There were decorations I hadn’t seen before, abstract artworks that I doubted she had picked herself. The children had left their mark, too. A cedar cabinet that had formerly displayed Jo’s rock collection was now filled with book reports, dioramas, and robots. Its resinous aroma intermixed with the spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. It smelled like home. I wanted to say so, but my conscience pulled me in the other direction.
“Look,” I said. “I can’t do this to you again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about when we met. You had no idea I was only going to be around for a couple years. I should have been upfront about it.”
Jo, never too shy to speak her mind, said, “Yes, you should have.”
I looked away. In the kitchen, the younger daughter, Valerie, was staring at us. Her older sister took her hand and led her to the back room where they could eavesdrop out of sight. I looked back at Jo, then at the fake wood grain on the laminate floor. “I have two years, maybe three at most.”
“You’re not going back.” It wasn’t a request or an order. It was an observation. I was acutely aware of what I must look like to her – a battered, threadbare version of the woman she had met on the trail. I had dark splotches on my face, bags under my eyes, and most tellingly, a catheter taped to my left hand. Nobody goes to space looking like that.
“No,” I said.
Some people really are worth waiting fifteen years for, I learned. That week, Jo took me on an easy hike in the provincial park, Layla and Valerie keeping pace with no effort. She’d found the perfect trail. It was level and well kept, lined with benches so we could rest frequently, but not overly manicured. For a hike with no elevation, the view wasn’t bad. I was glad it wasn’t winter. It was nice to see the color green again.
It seems the word “retirement” was never in my vocabulary. I had a lot of time to think about how Odyssey could be improved while living on the mission’s namesake. Some of my crewmates had shared their ideas too, but they never went forward with them after landing. They had other things to focus on. Caroline and Nemo were mired in a struggle to get the live samples to thaw and reproduce. Yuzo and Os were whisked away on the geology conference circuit, and as far as I know, are still on it. Kim is in politics. Only Grant still has ties to Ilion International, and he’s been too engrossed in the proposed Aeneas-bound fleet to put any energies into Odyssey III. By the time the dust settled, Odyssey’s future was the last thing on anyone’s mind, except mine.
Jo, Brian, Avery, and his girlfriend joined me on my first post-mission trip to the Ilion International Headquarters in Kourou. To my astonishment, it was Jo who drew the most stares. An older Japanese woman was the first to approach us, but when she saw who I was with, she nearly stopped in her tracks. “Someone will be with you in a second,” she said stiffly, and escaped through the same door she’d entered from.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“That’s Michiko Ito,” Jo whispered. She looked ill at ease. “Why is she still here? I thought she stepped down.”
“Stepped down from where?”
“She was the president of Ilion International.”
“Oh,” I said. “Ohhh.” I hadn’t recognized the president without the ridiculous plastic wrapping I had seen her in last. For the record, the coveralls were optional, and nobody except her wore them in my house. I think that’s why I’d been so rankled by it.
Our reception from then on was mixed. It was easy to tell who had been involved with Beringer’s Law, and which side they were on, by how they reacted to Jo’s company. “You really shook up the place,” I said to her after an awkward consultation with the Biosafety Committee.
She looked at her feet, sheepish, and just a little bit proud, I noticed.
In a desperate grab for normalcy, I tried to keep a low profile in the neighborhood. It didn’t last long, so I changed my approach. If I would just be myself, maybe my neighbors would see me the way I do. The way Jo sees me, and Brian. And would you know, it worked. I stopped being “Erin Carellos, the astronaut who went twice.” Now it’s, “Oh that’s Erin; she lives down the block.” As it should be.
The room shifted, turned on itself; a dull thud rang through my skull before Luo could catch me. A thorny mass glistened three centimeters from my nose.
“You almost took a pen to the face.” The voice wasn’t Luo’s, but a woman’s, and I was thrown into the present. Jo was holding my head in one arm and a jar of pens in the other, fear and consternation written on her face. I knew what was coming next.
“I really think going to Narrow Hills is a bad idea.”
I sighed, as I always did when she brought the subject up. “They rescheduled the training on my behalf. They even moved the location for me. I can hardly quit on them now.” I was supposed to train the crews of Odyssey III and Europa Recon separately. Narrow Hills would be a fine location to test Odyssey’s mission objectives, but would have little relevance to Recon’s, especially in the spring. It was a necessary compromise, because sending me to northern reaches of Nunavut was out of the question.
“You might change some minds if you go in looking like that.”
An ugly bruise was already blooming on my forearm where it had caught the edge of the coffee table. It didn’t even hurt. “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” I said.
Narrow Hills would be my last contribution to the Odyssey program. I didn’t have the energy to leave the simulated base camp on most days, but I served my purpose as a reality check in the flesh, as predected. One of the Europa crew dropped out of the program, and one of Odyssey III’s engineers met with me each night to brainstorm improvements that might better protect herself and her crew from ionizing radiation.
My training partner, wilderness expert Richard Lyle, worked double time to cover all the items on our roster. With Esker Trail cordoned off, I would be completely isolated if both groups were out in the field, so Richard took only one crew out at a time. Unable to walk more than a few steps on my aching joints, and too fatigued to have any desire to, I was more than dead weight. I was hindering the training just by being there. So when a ranger pulled up in the night to take me home, I went along without complaint.
The six-wheeled rover responded to my commands with ease. “This is really intuitive,” I said, playing with the interface. The program, which had come with the kit, was now installed on my tablet as well as Layla’s. The wheels whirred softly as her little robot followed the edges of my bed, its treads gripping the sheets like they were built for it. The girl sat at the foot of the bed, watching, following its journey.
“What does that mean?”
“It means it’s easy to understand how to use it.”
I relinquished control to her tablet. She plugged in a few commands and abruptly the rover changed course – and began to head towards me. It tested the grade of my pillow with a gentle sweep of the front right wheel. Unsatisfied, it turned around and made way for my for my feet. I looked over at Layla; she was laughing.
“What did you do?” I asked, grinning for the first time in several days.
“I told it to find elevation,” she said, still giggling.
“You know,” I said, “someday they’ll stop sending people to Ilion and they’ll put robots there instead. They’re cheaper, they’re cleaner, and they can’t get cancer.”
The significance was not lost on her. Her face turned serious. “So why did they send you at all?”
The question usually irked me, but not this time. It’s hard to be mad at a twelve year old. “Because it takes life to understand life. Besides, if something were to -” As if on command, a rear wheel caught on my hair and the rover flipped over and tumbled down Mount Erin. “That’s why.”
Jo found me on the couch the next morning, experimenting with Layla’s robot. It was taking a long exposure panorama of the living room in the predawn light. “What are you doing up?” she asked.
“I had the most horrifying thought of you waking up next to a corpse. I couldn’t sleep after that.”
Her relief at finding me alive and awake seemed to deflate on the spot. “You’ve given up,” she said bitterly.
I couldn’t bring myself to be angry or even surprised at her accusation. Such an irrational leap of logic could only spring from a deep-seated dread. “You’re taking this harder than I am,” I said.
“Of course I am. I’m the one who has to live with the consequences. And what about the girls? They love you more than their own dad. What am I supposed to say to them?”
I was too tired to argue. She’d had her chance to walk away from all of this and she knew it. Just as I had, long before. I sent the rover back to its charger and turned myself over with great effort, hiding my face in the cushions. “It is what it is.”
Later that day, the front door opened and Jo stepped through. A gust of wind followed her in.
“Mmmuh,” I complained.
“Yeah. What were you doing out there, anyway?”
She threw another quilt on me. “I had to talk to someone,” she said, plaintive, the stress of the last days weighing visibly on her shoulders. “I called Brian.”
“Oh shit,” I swore under my breath, suddenly more awake. I was supposed to tell him when…when it was time to make a visit. Better late than never. I reached into the couch cushions and pulled out my tablet. No picture, just sound.
“Hi Brains,” I said with the strongest mumble I could muster.
“Always the baby brother, huh? Even though I’m about fifteen years older than you now.”
“I’ll never live that down, will I?”
A part of me wanted to live a normal person’s life, comfortable and familiar and long. But the other part of me, that primeval force which predates my very existence, decided at some point that there were enough regular lives in the world and chose to create something different out of mine. A life defined by unfathomable heights and depths, a life of varying gravities. It left no room for the small adventures. But it was as rich as Ilion’s and Earth’s biospheres combined, and not even death can take that away.