The crew had landed safely on the pink planet they had surmised was capable of sustaining human life. Before leaving the ship, they had found that the atmosphere was so similar to earth’s, it was possible they didn’t have to wear their helmets. Upon observation, there was only water and plant life. Everyone had agreed on that except for Tom. He didn’t “feel right” about this place. The dusty ground, the lack of hills, it had given him an “unsettling feeling in my gut.”
“No planet we go to will be the exact replica of earth,” Amy had reminded him.
Tom had not cared. He didn’t trust this planet for one minute.
Anita had said, “We can’t reject a planet that has the potential to sustain human life because you don’t ‘feel right’ about it.”
“I’m telling you,” Tom had argued, “something isn’t right here. This isn’t the right planet.”
Cochner had got an inch within his face. They had been traveling for two months, but every second spent on this planet was one month spent on earth, according to his calculations. With gritted teeth, he had said, “The chances of us finding another planet this close to earth are slim to none, John. So what you’re feeling uneasy? Are you sure you didn’t skip breakfast?”
At that, Tom had pushed him back. “Don’t patronize me, Landon. I know this place isn’t right.”
Amy was checking atmospheric levels during the great debate. Cutting them off, she had said, “We should put our helmets back on.”
“I feel fine,” Tom had growled. By this point they had lost complete control of him.
On the other hand, Anita and Landon had taken her advice. Anita had asked, “How can you be so careless? You read the data, Tom. You and I did the research.”
Amy had walked a couple hundred yards away to collect samples and to escape the idiocy of the situation. Landon hadn’t blamed her.
“I want to leave,” Tom had finally let out. “Now.”
Landon wasn’t going to take any more of this. He had taken Amy’s example and stalked off in her direction. The planet’s sun had set an hour after they landed, forcing them back into the ship to determine how long nights and days were here. Tom had continued to be obstinate. They didn’t stay long enough to see when the pink planet’s sun came up.
Anita, Amy, and Landon were woken up as the ship was lifting off in the middle of the night. Landon had sprinted to the cockpit and spun Tom’s chair around.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?”
“Leaving this place.”
Anita had come up and clocked Tom in the jaw before he got another word out. She was a burly woman with a left hook Landon had never wanted to attempt to dodge. As Tom blubbered on the blood in his mouth, she had thrown him off the chair, sat down, and landed the ship back on dusty pink ground. The two took Tom outside while Amy shutdown the ship. The air was sparse and hard to breathe at night. All three immediately started coughing. Anita maintained composure first. She had slapped the bruised side of Tom’s face, sending him to the ground. A dark pink cloud of dust had picked up around him. After that, Anita lifted him up by the collar to give him another blow. Landon was the only one who could hold her back. She left go of his collar and Tom fell back to the ground. He was still coughing––his hands had reached around his own throat, scratching.
As soon as Anita had regained control of herself, she said, “You idiot. Is your goal to make us fail this mission? They’re all depending––”
“––on us back at home, and you’re going to––”
Landon was down on his knees next to Tom, whose face was turning from red to blue.
“He can’t breathe.”
They had to carry him back to the ship. By the time they had made it back, Anita and Landon knew there wasn’t much that could be done for him. Amy had helped them lift him onto a flattened chair.
“It’s his lungs,” she had said in a frightened tone. “Forty-three percent of the atmosphere is dust. He didn’t put his helmet back on earlier when I said to.”
Tom was no longer coughing. There was enough dust in his lungs to build a sand castle.
Looking at Anita and Landon with wide, searching eyes, she had asked, “Do either of you know if he smokes?”
That was when Landon had been sure nothing could be done for him. Clearing his throat, he had answered, “He smoked for fifteen years of his life before he joined Galactic.”
Amy’s face had drained of all its colors. Simultaneously, all three stepped away from Tom’s suffocating body. No matter what they injected into him, the dust would sit in his black lungs like bricks weighing him down closer to death. One minute later and there were only three crew members left. What had happened to Amy and Anita was far more tragic.
They had decided not to wait for daylight and left as soon as they placed Tom’s body in his sarcof-bunk. On their way back home, complications required them to ditch the satellite that was mounted underneath the ship. This had to be done manually. Anita had offered her services grimly and got to work on removing the satellite as fast as she could. Being out in the boundless space of the universe had always forced her heart into her throat. She had unbolted and let go of every necessary component that held the satellite to the Perseverance. When she got out the last screw, the satellite had broken away from the ship instantly with her still on it. Fortunately, their suits were designed to push them forward at the press of a button. When Anita pressed down, nothing had happened. She was still drifting away from the satellite as the Perseverance moved in the opposite direction. Panic had ensued, yet there was nothing she could do.
“It’s okay, Anita,” Amy had tried to calm her. “Take deep breaths, calm yourself down. We’re going to get you.”
Anita hadn’t heard a word.
“Anita? Anita?” Amy switched the microphone off and then on again. “Anita, can you hear me?”
The only things they could hear were hyperventilating and swears.
“Anita!” Landon had shouted.
“I…can’t…I can’t––I–I–I’m going to––”
“Anita, you’re going to be fine!”
By the time he had turned the Perseverance around, Anita was already gone. Panic had claimed her first. In her desperation, she had opened her helmet. Landon would never be able to dispel that image from his thoughts––her olive skin turned blue, her cheeks cracked, her eyes glass orbs in their dried out and frozen sockets. They didn’t have time to dwell, not even to collect her body. Amy was the one to turn the Perseverance around.
Her body was still in the Perseverance. Apparently the pink planet was much more toxic than they had anticipated. Amy had contracted some kind of unknown, foreign bacteria when she touched one of the plants with her bare hands aboard the ship. She resembled a blown up ballon until every liquid substance in her body (including her brain) oozed out of her. Long before that had happened, she quarantined herself in the airlock.
Cochner told all of this to Peter. He listened, hardly blinking and repeatedly wetting his lips.
“They never told you?” he said after he was done. “They never told you about immortal fertilization or that over population wasn’t an issue anymore?”
Cochner gestured toward the projector-tel. “Evidently they presumed us dead and forgot about us.” He watched his son, noting all the things about his life he had missed. “How did Parker get to live for so long? In my time, life expectancy was only ninety for men.”
“Dad died at one-hundred-and twenty-nine.”
Cochner smiled at the impressive number. The man on the screen shared his short, upturned Irish nose and emerald eyes. Parker excelled in every area of his life. It was only fitting to him that his son should long outlive the norm.
“Listen.” The cream camouflage blended into the screen as Peter turned it off. He set the remote into a compartmentalized pocket on the coffee table. He said, “I’m no scientist or ast…”
“My dad was a scientist and my grandfather” ––he spread his hands out at Cochner–– “is an astronaut. I’m neither of those things. However, is there no way to fix this?”
Cochner ran his hands over his short black hair. Hair he hadn’t cut in over two hundred years relative to earth. “Do you mean like going back in time and fixing everything?”
“Or going back to before you even left.” He picked up the black remote again and said, “COMM, put up all information regarding time travel.”
More information scrolled down the screen than when he searched for Galactic. He chose an article at random. Both read it in silence.
“In 2014 scientists could turn the clock back a few milliseconds.” Peter turned to Cochner. “That means it’s possible.”
“Time has always been understood relatively as moving forward, never backward.”
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to move backward, does it?”
He scratched his head. “Galactic’s main purpose was to explore unchartered galaxies. When over population became a crisis, our main priority was finding a new planet. There was no time to entertain the thought of time travel.”
Peter was back scrolling down the list. “Look at this.” He brought up a second article. “‘In Sweden, a virtual message was sent back one year that simply read: Hello. Five minutes after the message was sent back in time through a software called Retrorsum, they received a reply that read: Hi.’ That was in 2029.”
Not only could Cochner not wrap his mind around it, he had a hard time accepting it. The past had been experienced, lived. No one could change the past because of that simple fact. Right? The future, however, was unexperienced. It didn’t exist yet. That Cochner could get behind. But going backward? It was a question even he couldn’t answer.
“Look at this!” Peter exclaimed. “In 2028, a scientist received an anonymous message on his computer.’ Do you know what it said?”
“‘Hello.’” COMM answered auspiciously.
Cochner shook his head. “That shows that if you mess with the past, it messes with history. I can’t go back to before I left and pretend that mission Perseverance never happened. History can’t be erased.”
“Wormholes!” Peter snapped his fingers as he said it.
“What about them?”
“Don’t those things have something to do with time travel?”
“They’re more like gateways from one point of the universe to another.”
He slumped back into the couch, looking like a poorly amused boy. His eyes dimmed.
It was COMM. Wherever he was in the house, whatever machine he was, he sounded nothing like the robots Cochner knew in his time. Those hunks of metal were probably extinct now or in some forlorn museum.
Melting into the couch, he answered, “Yes, COMM?”
“May I suggest something to your conversation?”
He sighed, gradually becoming uninterested. “Sure, COMM, go ahead.”
“Are either of you familiar with the term ‘Black Hole’?”
He sat back up. Cochner perked up, too. The two glanced at each other, then at the screen where COMM listed a wealth of information.
“I’ve heard of a black hole before,” Peter said. “Have you?”
He was much more grave about the term. Glancing out the window, he saw bars behind it. “Yes, I’ve heard of it. Black holes are gravitational pulls that eat everything around them.”
“How are they made, COMM?”
“Collapsed stars,” Cochner responded first.
“How much do you know?”
On the screen was an unlimited supply of knowledge Cochner didn’t want. He frowned at the black image huddled with all of the information. “I know enough to know that it’s not worth looking into.”
“The year before mission Perseverance, a crew was in a galaxy made entirely out of a clump of stars. The oldest star in the galaxy was dying and collapsed on itself, taking the galaxy and the crew with it. We had no idea where they went or where the black hole took them. No one knows where black holes lead to. It’s like a…”
Rip in time.
“Like a what? What, sir?”
“In my time, some scientists believed that black holes lead beyond the third and forth dimension of our universe. The problem is––”
“No one can prove it.”
Peter turned to the screen. The corners of his mouth made indents where wrinkles would form hundreds of years from now. “COMM, give me the most recent information about black holes.”
Cochner couldn’t sit any longer. He went back to the counter where his beer was still waiting for him. It was still ice cold and not flat. The location on the countertop at which the beer rested had maintained a chilled temperature. He finished it in one large gulp. He noticed Peter was only getting started. He wondered what he did for a living and where his wife was. Wallowing back to the couch, he asked, “What do you do?”
Without moving his gaze from the screen, he said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what do you do for a living?”
“I sell furniture.”
It was interesting that the descendant of an astronaut and a scientist was a furniture salesman. Cochner may be old fashioned, but he had hoped for a better living for Parker. If he had potential to excel, so did Peter. But he shouldn’t judge another man’s decision. Life was, after all, subjective to each man who lived it. He did ask, “Shouldn’t you be at work? You know, at the office or the store?”
“Huh?” His attention funneled into the screen. He navigated through the information with his black remote. “There is no office or store.”
“Do you work from home, then?”
“I guess, yeah. Everyone does. All I do is get up in the morning, click a few buttons, and drink my coffee.”
The dead lawn caught his eye again. To see what would happen, he let go of the beer bottle. The mechanical hand snatched it out of thin air as if it knew his testing thoughts.
This house was filled with toys. It was filled with gadgets designed to make life easier. Clicking a few buttons was not a job. The way Peter perused the projector-tel lead Cochner to believe that he wasn’t trying to help so much as he was fascinated by all this like a boy fascinated with a new game. An immortal life––a life with no threats––seemed like a boring one.