“Landon Cochner. Your dad.”
The unknown man arrived days ago when his spacecraft collided into the wheat pastures of South Dakota. It took six miles for him to find civilization. When no one knew him or the Galactic Organization, he had no choice but to hitchhike to Texas. According to everyone he asked, no one knew mission Perseverance. No one knew Landon Cochner or the strange orange suit he wore. It was as if none of that existed.
His son would know, Cochner was sure of it. He knew a couple years had passed even though he’d been in another galaxy for a couple of days. If anyone knew Landon Cochner or Galactic, it would be his son.
Or so he thought.
The young man before him––who looked twenty-five now, not sixteen––stared at Cochner incredulously. He blinked several times, his blue eyes turning a shade darker with misunderstanding each time.
“Parker, it’s me, your dad. You know me.” He didn’t know man was capable of growing desperate this fast.
The young man blinked again and wet his lips. He appeared two inches taller than Cochner, which surprised him. He answered:
“You mean my father?”
“Parker Cochner.” Their brows furrowed at the same time. “Parker’s my dad’s name.”
“Where is Parker?”
He shuddered, shifting his feet. He wet his lips with a quick tongue. “My dad’s dead, sir. He died ten years ago.”
It felt like the floor was ripped out from under Cochner like he was a glass set on the table. Only he remained standing. It was his turn to wet his lips with a dry tongue.
“Dead?” His voice sounded far away. “My son’s dead?”
The young man was studying Cochner’s strange orange suit. It was made out of layers of thermal materials, rubber, and metal. The thickness of it hid his slumped shoulders and his dire need of a shower. The hot Texas sun beat down on his face. They were on the young man’s front porch, which used to be his front porch.
“I’m sorry, sir, what’s your name again?”
“Lan––Landon Cochner. What’s yours?”
“Peter Cochner.” His eyes attained their natural clarity of Caribbean water. “I think you’re my grandfather.”
“Grandfather?” It was getting hard to breathe. Not because his body wasn’t used to the earth’s atmosphere, but because he was trying to balance on his suspension of disbelief. “Are…Are you sure you’re not my son? You’re not Parker?”
Peter smirked. He gave Cochner a once over for a second time. “Would you like to come in, sir? You look like you could use a shower.”
Cochner followed him inside, trying to catch his breath, trying to stay afloat in reality. “You’re my grandson?” he heard himself ask.
“If Parker’s your son, then I must be.” He went to the fridge and pulled out two beers. He handed one to Cochner. The chilled bottle brought him back a little.
“How long have I been gone?” he asked.
Peter popped off both their caps with his wedding ring. “I didn’t know I had a grandfather. Dad never spoke of you.”
“He never mentioned me?”
He took a swig of his beer, shaking his head. “I must be the only person on earth whose grandfather is still alive.”
Cochner snapped his gaze from his beer to Peter. “What do you mean?”
He took another swig. “No one has a grandfather anymore.”
Cochner set his beer down. “What do you mean? How long have I been gone?”
Peter didn’t hear him. He was showing him where the bathroom was. It didn’t look like a bathroom to Cochner at all. There was a toilet, but no sink or shower, not even a bathtub. Peter went over to a dial on the wall and switched it to the left. “All ready,” he said.
“All ready for what?”
“Where’s the drain?”
It was clear Peter was trying not to laugh. “Stand here.” He moved to the left of the dial. There was a vent above him. He pointed to the dial. “Push this when you’re ready. I’ll get you a change of clothes.” Before he left, closing the door behind him, he studied Cochner one more time.
He stripped, throwing his orange suit by the sink, and stood under the vent. When he pushed the button, steam shot down onto his naked body. It was hot, soothing, and gone in less than ten seconds. He stood there for another ten seconds, waiting for something else to happen, until he realized he was done.
“Hope these fit.” Without opening the door all the way, Peter threw a grey shirt and a pair of jeans out on the floor. Cochner put them on. The jeans were a little long but otherwise the clothes fit fine.
He went back to the counter where Peter finished his beer. He realized he wasn’t as young of a man as he thought. Silver strands of hair were visible at his temples. Minute lines were webbed outside his eyes. Cochner couldn’t help but ask himself again: How long have I been gone?
Peter pushed Cochner’s untouched beer toward him and grabbed himself another one from the fridge. “So,” he hesitated, “what’s Galactic?”
As soon as the beer touched his tongue, he registered that he hadn’t tasted a drop in two years. He chugged half of it in his first drink, belching afterward. “‘Scuse me. Galactic was organized by the U.S. government three years after NASA was shut down.”
Peter gave him a quizzical look. “NASA?”
“National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”
His face remained blank. “I’m assuming you’re some kind of––what’s the name? Starts with an a?”
“That’s it! Are you one of those?”
Cochner was stunned. “Do astronauts not exist anymore? Are there no space organizations anymore?”
He shrugged. “I guess the government doesn’t see the need for them anymore.”
“Doesn’t see the need? What––” He glanced around Peter’s living room. A comfortable looking grey couch faced a blank cream-colored wall. No doubt there was a projector-tel built into it with a camouflage front. Two dark bookshelves boarded it, though the books were color-coded and alphabetized. Merely decorations, no doubt. More project-tels. To the left a large window looked out on a dead lawn and a white fence that separated their yard from the neighbors behind them. Cochner never let the lawn get that dry and overgrown.
“What year is it?” he asked.
Peter answered, “2256.”
Cochner’s beer slipped from his grasp as his hand lost feeling. Before it shattered on the nice hardwood floors, a mechanical hand shot out from the counter and caught it.
“How is that possible?”
Cocnher looked around the house again. The cream walls, the grey symmetrical couch, the stainless steel refrigerator, and the stone-tiled countertop. There was no oven; the sink didn’t have a faucet; a tall black box sat in the corner of the dining room, either some kind of stereo or commun-machine. He glanced won at the mechanical hand that saved his beer. He took it and set it on the counter. The hand went back into the edge of the counter as if it had been never been there. He found himself glancing out at the backyard again. He never would have let the grass die.
“Are you okay, sir?” Peter lightly touched his arm. He pulled back instinctively, gazing into his bright blue eyes again.
“If it’s 2256,” he said, “then that means I’m one-hundred-and-fifty-four-years-old.”
Peter’s brow furrowed. At first he grinned at what he thought was a joke, but when Cochner didn’t laugh, the corners of his mouth slipped down. “That’s two years older than me. How is that possible?”
How long had he really been up in the vast black sky? Two days days, maybe three. In another galaxy lightyears away, he didn’t think time in that galaxy, on that unknown planet, changed earth’s relativity to time that much. Perhaps his math was off––no, it wasn’t. He was never wrong. That didn’t eliminate the fact that he was human.
He felt his knees give way. “I think I need to sit down.”
Peter helped him to the couch. Although the temperature in the house was regulated, sweat broke out on both of their faces. After a minute of sitting and catching his breath, Cochner began to accept that maybe his calculations had been off. He wiped his dry mouth with a sweaty hand. He wished he brought the beer over to the couch with him.
Peter asked, “How long were you up there? In space?”
“Two months. Now I’m not so sure.”
“How old were you when you left?”
Peter’s face turned to ash. “The two days you were in space was one hundred years here?”
“We were part of the Perseverance expedition. Our objective was to find another sustainable planet to solve overpopulation on earth.”
“The earth isn’t overpopulated.”
“There were 20.3 billion people on earth when I left it. Not even the rich could afford more than half an acre of land. There are apartment buildings eighty stories high. Farms had not choice but to downgrade to give up land for people to live..”
“There’s only four billion people on earth today.”
“What?” Cochner snapped his neck to look at him. “What happened to the rest?”
He ran a hand over his mouth, blinking several times before answering. “Let’s see…I was born in 2104, the same year the government passed its first bill to experiment with immortal fertilization. I was one of the first babies to be conceived under the experiment.”
He shook his head. “Not one-hundred-percent. I’m one-hundred-and-fifty-two-years-old. I’m guaranteed to live well into my five-hundreds, but there’s no guarantee I’m immortal. No one can prove that anyone is one-hundred-percent immortal.”
The world spun upside down, sideways, and in every other direction in Cochner’s mind. As he tried to understand, he blinked on the seemingly impossible information. He asked, “How many people are there on earth who are like you?”
“Over four billion.”
It was like getting punched in the gut with brass knuckles.
“There hasn’t been a newborn baby in about fifty years. Four billion was the goal after the government made the bill into a law.”
“You don’t have any children?”
He shook his head again. “Just me and my wife. Every school in this country was shut down two years ago There’s no more need to educate ones who are already educated. There are no more children to educate.”
How could there not be children? The purity and beauty of this earth, how could there be no more? How could there be no more education? It was intriguing, to say the least. Cochner saw that Peter was an educated man by everything in the house, all the nice appliances and chic furniture. Everything except that back lawn.
“And space travel?” Cochner inquired. “There’s no more Galactic? Nothing?”
Peter went back to the kitchen to grab his beer.
“No one knows of Galactic?” he said louder.
Peter sat back down with his beer and a small black remote. He spoke into it: “COMM, give me all the information you can find on Galactic.” He said “Galactic” as if it wasn’t a real word that could be looked up in the dictionary.
Suddenly, the projector-tel turned on, the cream cover dissolving away. “Here’s all of the information I found on ‘Galactic,’” an ominous, human-like voice responded.
“Thank you, COMM.”
“You’re welcome, Peter.”
A list of information popped onto the screen. Peter scrolled down the list with the black remote. One headline read: Galactic Organiztion shut down, government deems it “unnecessary.” Cochner pointed at it, “Pull up that one.”
Peter did as he was told. He read aloud, “After much debate and compilation of facts and opinions, the U.S. government has decided to disband the Galactic Organization, the country’s only space travel station. Congress voted a unanimous 3-1 on President Gone’s bill Thursday, October 16, 2152.” He stopped reading. “I remember that now. Dad did mention something about my grandfather being in space, but I didn’t believe him.”
“President Gone,” Cochner read on, “wrote in his proposition that the space organization is no longer necessary. There is no more need to explore galaxies that either we can’t get to or we are unaware of. Government spending can be better spent to solve the water crisis.” He looked to Peter. “The water crisis?”
“All the icebergs melted by the time I was ten. When I was twenty, more water in the ocean was evaporating into the atmosphere than we were drinking it.” He smirked, “I remembering thinking that I was going to die. Me, an immortal, dying of dehydration. Ten years later icebergs were forming again. Now water levels and the Antarctic are back to normal. By that time reproducing was prohibited if it wasn’t through immortal fertilization.”
None of that could be true. Cochner wouldn’t accept it. Yet there the information was, right in front of his face. He screamed at the screen, “We were only gone two days! You sent us there! You knew how long it might take! How could they forget? How?”
Peter was back scrolling through the list. “There was a memorial service for you in 2153.”
“A memorial service?”
President Rawlens Holds Memorial Service for Perseverance Expedition
“The mission was only supposed to take ten to fifteen years, tops,” one of the scientists, Richard Rashard, said. Cochner knew him, knew his children. “After eight years, we lost communication with the crew. We could track where their ship was, but the condition of the crew or the mission, we had no clue. At some point, we had to stop waiting.”
Peter found a video of the service. Up on stage there were four blown-up pictures of all the crew members. Amy Stigletz, Thomas John, Anita Dawkins, and Landon Cochner. Standing behind the podium was Parker.
“There comes a time,” he spoke into the microphone, “when we have to let go of the ones we love most. I’ve been tracking my dad’s ship since he left. After eight years, now I have a wife and a son. I’ve grown up tracking my dad’s ship, sending him signals every day, just to tell him that I’m still waiting. I’m still here and I’m still waiting.” Parker wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “But now I think the time has come for me to let my dad go. You can hold onto something only for son long until you realize that you’re not holding onto anything anymore.”
Cochner buried his face into his hands and cried. Peter placed his hand on his grandfather’s back. Parker was significantly taller in the video. He still had his dark short hair, like his old man. He looked back to the screen and saw a beautiful woman and a sprouting boy next to him. She had fair skin and bright blue eyes, the same as the boy beside her. She stood stoically next to Parker. Peter’s face was blank at his mother’s side.
“Goodbye, dad,” Parker said. He craned his head up to the sky and waved.
Over one hundred years in the future, Cochner waved back, the tears still flowing down his face. Pity festered in Peter’s chest. “I remember now. Being so old, it’s so easy to forget some details of my past. I’m sorry.”
“It’s my fault,” Cochner muttered. “I messed up the calculations.”
But itt wasn’t all his fault. There was a reason why he was the only crew member sitting on Peter Cochner’s couch right now.