Beyond Time and Circumstance
by Joshua J. Mark
I, alone, carry the memories now.
Alone on a star.
In a black void.
Empty as loneliness.
But I’ve won.
And when the Colonel chose me, I was a soul in bliss.
Blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime.
To journey through trackless space and see what no human eye has ever seen before mine.
To fly, to truly fly,
Just as Amanda wanted to.
“Okay, we’re down to the three of you. Three. And it’s a hard choice, ladies, let me tell you: you’re good. Well, hell, you’re the best. It’s just that now we gotta find out who’s the best of the best.”
Yes. “The best,” he said, hands on his hips. Freshly shaven, of course, his brown hair going silver tousled by the wind out on the tarmac. The pen in his white shirt pocket was silver, I remember, and too large. It made the little pocket droop. It wasn’t a regulation pen. Strange for the Colonel.
“The best,” he said. Yes. But the best at what?
“Nicole Baumann, sir.”
“Ye... no. Not anymore. Sir.”
“Can you explain?”
“A little girl. She... died.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Yes, sir. Top shape, sir.”
“Well, we’ll see about that after the pre-training. And what makes you want to enter the program?”
“I... well... it’s never been done before. I... no one’s ever done it before, sir.”
“Yup,” he said, sitting back in his chair behind the broad desk. “That’s right. No one has. Ever pause to consider why?”
I never had. I suppose that’s the thing about desire, isn’t it? If you pause too long to consider why you want that thing you want more than anything, you might just realize you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. So, you don’t pause. You don’t think. If you think too long, you lose the will to win.
And I won. Strapped inside a capsule and catapulted at the speed of light past Pluto. An explorer of worlds unimagined. Riding the stars in my nuclear-reactor chariot scaring up life forms and beeping signals back to a world I know does not exist any longer.
“You’re out of your freaking mind! You are out of your mind!”
“Trey, if you’d just... just stop a moment and listen.”
“To what? Why don’t you just tell me you want to blow your head off? Hey, I’ve got the .357 right down the hall, Nik, right in the bedroom closet. How ’bout you just trot down and get it? Here’s the key. Here’s the goddamn key to the box, Nikki! Why don’t you just trot down the hall and save time?”
“You’re not listening to me! It’s the chance of a lifetime, Trey. It’s—”
“This is the chance of a lifetime,” he said, standing in the middle of the living room, pointing with his finger down at the blue carpet. “This. How many people you think get this? Huh? How many people we know live together under a roof and know, really know, they’re supposed to be together forever?”
“But... but it won’t last forever. It could end. We both know it could. Any day. Any second.”
“She’s gone, Nikki. I hurt, too, okay? I think that’s a hurt that never goes away. I don’t think it should ever go away. But that doesn’t mean you stop living. Doesn’t mean you give up and get in a ship that takes you out of your life.”
“This is the greatest honor the Air Force can give. This is my life.”
“It’s mine, too. I’ve lost a daughter, and now I’m supposed to...`support’ you taking yourself away from me? I’m supposed to — what? — be happy I could lose my wife? What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?”
“It’s my job.”
“It is not. You just want out, and you’re too chicken to say it. The program won’t even take you, anyway. You’re too old.”
“I’m only thirty.”
“Yeah. And that’s too old. Not for flying jets, no. But it sure is for space travel.”
“I’ve already been accepted.”
The blue of the carpet was so deeply dark. It looked so much lighter in the show room.
“What did you say?”
“I’ve already been accepted.”
“Well. Huh. Well, well.” He seemed to wilt. A tall, strong plant suddenly blighted by a frost. There in the living room in his white uniform, the black belt, shiny silver buckle. “I guess there’s - nothing to say anymore.”
“Don’t be so upset. I could still not be the one they choose to go.”
“You’ll be the one. You will.” He looked up, into my eyes. “You’re the best.”
The best, at winning. Winning whatever I wanted to win. I joined the Air Force right out of high school. I was top of my class. Valedictorian. Could’ve gone to any college I wanted. But that was never for me. That kind of safety: feet on the floor behind a desk somewhere in an office. Not for me. Whatever I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve done. And I never let anyone stand in my way. Anything I wanted to win, I’ve won. And I never let the thought of losing pass across my mind.
Every girl at the Academy wanted Trey Baumann; only one got him. And there were no consolation prizes for the losers. Never are. I hate losing. I hate losing anything, and I won’t let anyone tell me what I can and cannot have.
They told me I couldn’t have a career and a child. Well, I did. They told me I couldn’t manage being a pilot and being a parent. But I proved them all wrong. I always wanted to fly, and I did. I was the best. The best.
There was nothing I could do that day. It happened too quickly. Amanda. Mandy. She wanted to fly, too.
And she did. “Look, Mommy! I’m gonna fly again. Watch!”
“You just be careful. Daddy comes home and finds you with a broken arm, it’s not going to be Christmas for you.”
Putting my presentation down on my desk, turning, “I thought I told you to stop jumping off the couch.”
I was coming out of the study in our housing unit on base, third-floor apartment, straightening the front of my uniform, adjusting my tie, passing by the blinking Christmas tree in the corner.
She was perched on the back of the couch, arms out for balance, silhouetted against the dying December sky outside the tall pane of window behind her.
Outside, brakes screeched, and a horn sounded loudly. She was startled. I remember seeing that look cross her face. A second. She was there for a second, that look crossing her face. And then she was gone.
She went backwards, arms out, into the sky, like a stricken bird caught by a howling hurricane blast. And there was the broken window and the glass tinkling on the floor and the wind blowing.
“Amanda! My baby, my baby, my little baby!”
Alone on a star in a black void. You travel at the speed of light. You know time changes. Oh, not for you. We can all only know our own reality, after all. But time changes for them. It’s always worse for the one who’s left behind.
If I climbed into my ship right now and headed back, I’d find weeds where my garden grew. And Trey Baumann. Lieutenant Baumann. He must be, what, three hundred years dead by now. I wonder if he married again. Had a family. Is there any trace of him left behind? If I climbed up into my ship right now and headed back, would there be anything worth heading back for?
“I suppose I should say congratulations, Captain Baumann. You’re our man... or, woman, rather. You’re heading out.”
“Thank you, sir. I consider this the honor of a lifetime, sir.”
“Do you? I consider it the sacrifice of a life, myself. But that’s the service. What it calls for. Maybe I’m just getting too old for this, and cynical. I don’t see what rocketing off into the abyss of space is gonna profit anyone.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but don’t you think this program could bring us benefits that... well... things we can’t even imagine? Sir?”
He nodded. Brown hair laced with silver and his face looked gray above the white uniform. “How’s your husband dealing with this now? Any better?”
“We all have things we need to adjust to, sir. He’ll be fine.”
“As I said, sir, I consider this the greatest honor of my life.”
He pushed his fingers against his eyes and sighed, nodding. “Report to green unit O-four hundred tomorrow, Captain. Dismissed.”
Her coffin was small and white with gold trim. She would have thought it lovely if she could have seen it. The day was a beautiful blue above, and the snow lay all around, blanketing the graveyard. Small white hills atop each stone. A crow landed on the barren limb of a nearby oak tree and cried. And I cried, too. And Trey. Everyone. We all cried under the long blue sky, and the breeze blew a December chill, and I felt frightened that she was cold all alone in that small white box, and all I wanted was to climb in there beside her and hold her and hold her and never let her go for an eternity.
“You’re talking about eternity, Nik. Forever. I’m never going to see you again. You understand that.”
“Who cares? Who the hell cares? I can’t live this through. Every day. Every single day I’m afraid. Afraid you won’t come in that door like you always do. Every single day.”
“That’s life. For Christ’s sake, Nikki. That’s just life. That’s what we all live in. Every day.”
“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a winning ticket. And I’m punching it.”
“Don’t you care anything at all for me? Don’t you care—”
“Can’t you see that’s why I’ve got to do it? We have it all, we have everything and... and we’re going to lose everything. Just like we lost Mandy. That’s what happens. You lose. You lose everything. Well, not me. I don’t lose.”
“But - can’t you enjoy what we still have? Look what every day brings to us here: the good things we’ve got together.”
“Loss. Pain. Meaningless misery. Every good thing gets taken from you. And then you get taken from you.”
“That’s all you can see? That’s all you’ve got with me?”
“That’s all there is, finally. Who cares how much I love you when it can all end, any day, in a second?”
“You think you’ll live forever going into outer space? You think you’re gonna conquer death? You think she won’t follow you wherever you go?”
“I think I’m not going to lose. I’m not. I won’t have anything anymore to lose. Just me. But it’s my choice. Mine. I won’t have to wait around for the day you fall out some window or get hit by a car.”
“Those things could never happen, Nicole. Never.”
“Oh, no. Most things never happen. One thing always does. To everyone.”
And has it happened? Of course it has. It must have. Three hundred years dead by now. Not even a memory, probably. How well do you remember anyone from three hundred years ago if he didn’t start a war or invent gravity or write a sonnet? Who remembers Trey Baumann back there on Earth? A good man with a crooked smile who liked to watch TV in bare feet and drink grape juice with ginger ale?
And who remembers Amanda Baumann, either? A little girl with black hair she wore pulled back, who chased after butterflies across the long green expanse of the park down the street and spoke proudly of being a second-grader.
She didn’t write a poem or become Joan of Arc. She never had the chance to do either. And I, alone, carry their memory. The girl who left me behind, and the man I did the same to.
Light-years on light-years and forever apart from them, I replay those memories I have, and they live again, beyond the reach of time and circumstance. Even alone on a star in a black void, I’ve won.
Copyright © 2020 by Joshua J. Mark