Here With Me Now
by Ian Cordingley
I know what’s going to happen.
I’ve dug out my frame. I cycle through the pictures, the movies. I settle upon a favourite of mine. She’s on the balcony of the place we stayed in when we went to France a few years back. The indigo waters of the Mediterranean are behind her; her hair flying in the breeze while you laugh.
I smile. I click it off for a moment.
It’s hard because I’m unaccustomed to my clumsier left arm. My right arm is holding a sealing patch over my wound. So far it’s the only thing keeping the vacuum out and the blood in.
I’m alive but I don’t know why. The Gift had suddenly become erratic, like it was trying to shake us off. The damn thing rammed itself into Triton to get rid of us, which was kind of self-defeating. I mean, it was just lying there, right? If it wanted to get testy, it had the chance when we were crawling through it, trying to puzzle it out.
I try not to think about it. I pull myself to my feet.
The crash site is strewn with debris. I am the only survivor that I can see. It’s quiet: my communicator merely provides subtle white noise to accentuate my predicament.
If they blame it on me, spoke the first coherent thought that ran through my head, I’m going to get really pissed off. I chuckle at my little joke. And then I try to figure out how to pass the time.
* * *
“It’s not easier for me either.”
She looked up from the window. They were speeding over featureless grey black terrain. She was trying not to imagine what it must have been like, if it was quick or if there was some lingering before the end.
“At least you have a body.”
He smirked. “Well, there’s that.”
Just a few more hours until they reached the base at the foot of the Beacon and beneath it the vault where the Gift was discovered. A small base, but it had grown dramatically. Even after the failure of the Gift, curiosity had not stopped. There was still the Beacon to be amazed at. Once the Gift came back, after years of careful analysis, then human enthusiasm would be boundless. At least, that was the plan.
Brian sent her photos of him and the rest of the team in front of it in their almost identical suits, and pictures of him sitting at the controls grafted onto the Gift’s unfamiliar structure — usually with some corny signature line: E.T. PICK UP with a child’s plastic phone placed on the communications unit.
She sighed. After two years she wasn’t nearly over it.
“You’ve been here twice?”
He nodded. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I’m thinking of coming here, to do research.”
Karl was fresh out of school, a doctorate under his belt. His father, Daniel Clifford, the expedition’s astrophysicist, would have been proud.
For Sandra Young it was her first time off-world. She and Brian had always made half-formed plans and promises to visit the moon some day, tacky as it was reputed to be.
“Is it as bad as I’ve heard?”
Karl shrugged. “Not particularly. It’s cramped, but you’ll be amazed how cozy it’ll turn out to be.”
She nodded, knowing she could trust Karl’s word. He rested back in his seat, sighing contentedly. Only the families of the expedition had been permitted as the first non-essential people out this far. She looked out the window, watching the terrain speed by.
* * *
“So can we see it?”
“Not tonight,” I say, “but we can see some of the other planets.”
I’m distracted. The telescope won’t adjust itself. She keeps pace a few meters away, playfully impatient. A loon calls, a lovely touch to a lovely evening.
We won’t have too many like it left. Summer’s slowly leaving. Some of the leaves have the bad taste to change colour early. And I’ll be going away for training in a matter of weeks. This may be the only night we have together for a long time.
I finally get the telescope to work. “There,” I say with a flourish of triumph.
She saunters over. “Is it...?”
“Yeah,” I say, wiping my brow. She bends down and peers through the lens.
“Oh yeah,” she says. I smile.
Above the moon are a couple of specks. Two outer planets: Jupiter and Saturn. I’ve trained the scope on Jupiter. It, too, has a couple of tiny specks, two moons.
“Yep,” I say. I crouch down next to her. “If you...”
“I see it,” she replies. A couple of taps on the key take her in deeper.
The brilliant red spot comes more into focus. She keeps it on optical out of inexperience or wonder. She peers in closer, and then her attention is drawn to the moons.
“Europa... and Callisto,” she reads the telescope’s helpful information.
She takes her eye off the lens for a moment and looks up at the sky.
Yes, that little prick of light could swallow the bulk of the solar system. And people are there, looking back at the speck where we are. “Cool,” she whispers.
She takes a seat on the ground. “And you’re going there?” she asks.
“Past it,” I explain. “We’ll need the gravity boost.”
I know the details intimately. A couple of tankers have made the long trip out. They’ll refuel us, allowing us to boost more, getting there faster.
“There are people there?”
“A few,” I admit, “but there’s nothing much to look at.”
Really, exploration hasn’t changed from the early days of the return to the moon and Mars. We’re still using the basic components, the basic ideas, buried under Europa ice, in the wet soil of Titan.
The Gift has changed all that. It’s been five years since its discovery, but the furor has yet to die down. There’s a lot of talk about where it will take us, a lot of speculation that will be resolved very soon. We’ve figured it out enough to warm it up. It’s waiting, waiting for me to take it, and us, somewhere new.
I sit on the grass. I look over the lake where it’s still light. I want to enjoy it while I can.
“So,” she says casually, though it’s weighed down on her mind for a long time, “how long?”
“There? Eighteen months. Not too bad.”
But I’ll be staying there longer. That’s the plan. Take a good long look at the Beacon. I’m familiar enough with it through pictures, but I have to truly get up to it, touch it, feel it, to get a bearing on it.
When I leave, I may not be coming back home.
But we don’t talk about that. It’s best to keep the conversation hopeful.
“You’re very composed.”
She nods. This is no different from my Air Force days.
To distract me, she fiddles with the telescope a bit. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, “about when you come back.”
“I have, too. Hell, it’s practically been the only thing I’ve thought of since I got the assignment.” I lie back on the grass. A few possibilities swirl through my head.
We’ve mapped out the future, sort of.
“If you do come back...”
I laugh. “We’ll have a million kids, a nice white clapboard house, and a dog. Is that it?”
She almost falls over herself in mirth. “No,” she says.
We’ve been together a while. I try to remember my past without her and fail. If I am not with her, I am building sand castles on the beach or talking bawdy with the boys behind the portables at school.
“There’s more to it than that,” she protests.
“As long as you stay true,” I promise, “I will dedicate my entire life to making you happy.”
“I can imagine it. I only have eyes for you.”
“As long as you don’t look elsewhere,” I correct her.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” she says, her words slick and smooth. I believe her.
“Just don’t find some twelve-breasted alien hussy,” she asks, and I promise her that I won’t.
She lies down next to me, and I put my arm around her. We don’t have much time left together. We’d better make every second count.
And so we lie there for a couple more hours, until the chill and mosquitoes drive us indoors.
* * *
“Was it worth it?”
The Beacon towers over them larger than she expected. At its base is the personal memorial: the names of the fallen engraved into a piece of spare metal.
Plastic flowers surround it. In a neat trick, a few candles flicker, a steady stream of oxygen nurturing the tiny flames. Sandra cradles a rose, a real rose. She took pains to ensure it would survive the temperature and acceleration.
Karl stands unmoved. One after another, the relatives, in their moron-proof suits, come forward, leave their tokens. She’s the last person standing. Karl gives her a small, gentle prod.
Almost without thinking she places her rose beneath the monument. She runs her finger over Brian’s name. She steps back and glances upwards.
“But was it worth it?” she asked again.
“We’ll make it,” Karl replies.
Sandra stands for a moment in confusion. The Beacon was very plain, which was infuriating. But Karl’s confidence is very soothing. For the first time in a long time, she feels calm, even positive about what the future has to hold.
Their hands find each other.
* * *
And so here I am.
Let me tell you what I think.
I don’t think you were intended to be the chariot to the stars you were made out to be. We prepared for almost everything except that. That’s very clever of you.
You wanted somebody, and you settled for me.
Not that I’m annoyed.
So I watch the traffic around Triton. It’s building up now, getting heavier. The Gift has inspired us. We’ve dissected its remains, learning new riches.
Is that part of your plan or not?
You tend to keep me in the dark.
I watch the group of pilgrims arrive. The first band of non-professionals this far out, on the shore of the greatest sea in existence. More will come.
Sandra’s with them. I can sense her presence. She’s looking up at the Beacon.
Somehow her hand finds his.
I know what’s going to happen. I give you my permission.
Copyright © 2008 by Ian Cordingley