The two prisoners sat quietly in their cell. Paol Joonter was writing a letter in response to the one he had received from his family. Every Tuesday, Paol anticipated that weekly letter. It was his only link to the family. After reading the letter three times and memorizing every detail of the picture of his children, who appeared to be enjoying themselves at the Seattle Mariners baseball game, Paol sat down on his chair and began to write his weekly response on his clipboard.
Three feet away, he could hear the occasional deep and raspy breath of his cellmate, Blade Slater, who was enveloped in his reading “All Quiet on the Western Front.” An occasional muffled vocalization was heard in response to Blade’s reading, followed by the soft sound of the pages turning. Echoes of other prisoner interactions could be heard through the halls of the cell block.
Only Paol noticed any of the noises, as Blade was consumed by his book. For that reason, Paol’s head was the only one to raise from his letter writing as he heard the growing thump of footsteps approaching from down the hall. A guard emerged in view and approached the cell.
“Joonter!” the guard barked into the cell needlessly, considering that the two had already made eye contact. Unlocking the cell with his laser key, the guard announced one last word “Visitor.”
At this, Blade’s focus returned to the present with a nearly imperceptible raise of his eyebrows. Without lifting his eyes from his book, Blade congratulated his partner for his break in the doldrums of the regular routine and bid him farewell for the moment.
Paol quietly followed the guard, remaining ten feet behind as required by security regulations. Prisoners cooed and jeered at Paol as he walked by, voicing resentment through phrases too indecent for print. Paol ignored it all, fixing his gaze to the back of the guard leading him to the visitation room, a small five-foot square box of concrete with aged fluorescent lighting. A 12-inch thick glass separated him from his lawyer, Warron Zimmer.
Paol was always encouraged by these visits, since he remained hopeful that Zimmer would bring some significant news in his parole process, but generally, all updates were less than encouraging. The process was moving forward, at a typical judicial pace, but Zimmer was still seeking a significant piece of the puzzle that would help accelerate the process. After months in prison, Paol was growing frustrated and hopeless.
After briefing his client on the current status, Paol could tell that there was no reason to get his hopes up during this visit either. After a typical exchange where Warron gave Paol details, and Paol gave Warron his appreciation, Paol felt something a little different in the countenance of his lawyer during a pause in the conversation.
“Paol,” began Zimmer, not knowing exactly how to begin.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told you that my brother is Carlton Zimmer, the astrophysicist.”
“No, I don’t remember ever hearing that. I read in the news that he has been involved in some pretty amazing discoveries this year.”
“He is working presently on a mission to Earth2.”
“Yeah that sounds quite wild.”
“Actually, everything is proceeding quite nicely, as far as the mission is concerned, but there is one snag that is jeopardizing his efforts of ever getting to explore this new Earth.”
“Nobody seems willing to accept the mission.”
“I thought NASA was stacked with astronauts and candidates ambitious to become astronauts.”
“Well, I think the Mars scare has been effective at keeping astronauts on pins and needles, and frankly, every astronaut—as I understand it from my brother—feels that the mission is simply suicidal. They see too many unknowns that could easily go wrong, and the commitment is large. It will be 13 years before the astronauts return. So there they are. NASA needs a pair of astronauts for the most exciting mission in the history of our planet, and they can’t even find one.”
Paol gave a low whistle. “I guess I hadn’t been following closely enough to realize the specifics. That is a long time.”
Sitting forward in his seat, Warron spoke intently. “I’d like to make a suggestion, Paol.”
Paol’s face contorted, not knowing where this was going. He indicated to his lawyer to proceed with the suggestion.
“NASA is very eager to find individuals to fulfill this mission. The United States—heck, the world—is very eager. I could get you out of here, Paol, if you would accept to do this.”
Paol blinked rapidly and cocked his head to the left. Measuring his response, he continued, “I’m not sure if I understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying that I think it would be in your best interest to trade in your orange jumpsuit for a blue spacesuit, Paol. Serve your country on this mission, and when you return, I can practically promise that you’d be pardoned by the president. Besides, by the time you return, I’m almost certain to have cracked this case open.”
“Warron,” Joonter spoke with complete surprise. “You just told me that the mission is suicidal. If I wait here, I might be able to see my family again someday.”
“No,” Zimmer shook his head. “I didn’t say it was suicidal… it’s the press and the astronauts who say it is suicidal. My brother thinks there is actually a good chance for success.”
“So, I put my life in the hands of one person, who is certainly biased towards making this attempt.”
“Paol, I would trust my brother with my life. I have talked to him at length about this, and I believe him—the mission can succeed.”
“Why should I believe him?”
“That’s what everyone said when he was looking for his parallel Earth. It’s what they said when he first discovered an object faster than the speed of light. Nobody believed him—but they were forced to in the end. Look, I’m not going to pressure you into this, but I think it would be an incredible opportunity to do something with your time instead of sitting in this cell. I might get you back to your family within the next couple of years instead of taking 13, but that all depends on if I can find the smoking gun that lands the right person in your place.”
Warron Zimmer stopped there, as he realized that Paol was enveloped in a flurry of thought. Weighing the options, his mind raced. He envisioned the scenarios—perhaps he would spend many long years in a prison cell, or maybe he would be returned to his family sooner than expected, or maybe he should invest the 13-year side trip to regain his life on his own terms, once and for all.
“I’ll do it.”
Zimmer was dumbstruck. “Don’t you want time to think about it?”
“Warron, I didn’t get to where I am—” he stopped to look around. “—Or I should say, where I was—without waiting long enough for someone else to take the opportunities away from me. In business, I always acted fast, trusted my instincts, and more often than not, they served me well. My heart tells me that the world needs to know about this other place, so why should I sit here doing nothing, when I have the opportunity to do something more—much more.”
“But there are no guarantees. You may not come back.”
“Are you changing your mind on this, Warron? I thought you trusted your brother with your life. Besides you didn’t ask me just for kicks. You thought that it might just make sense.”
“So, I’ll do it, but under one condition.”
The smile was erased. “What condition?”
“I get to bring my cellmate with me.”
“What?” Warron asked in amazement. “You want to bring a hardened criminal in a maximum security prison on the most dangerous undertaking of your life?”
“Well, you just asked one person in that category to do this? Why do you think there are no others in here that could do the job? He is one of the most gifted people I’ve met—a real self-taught genius who has read up on every subject imaginable in the seven years he’s been here. Besides his intuition and quick thinking has preserved his and my health in this hell hole. And he has something in common with your brother. ”
“What’s that?” Warron asked excitedly.
“I would trust him with my life.”
Blade Slater could detect an expression of bewilderment on the face of his fellow inmate when he returned. Barely looking up from his book, he inquired, “Good news, I hope.”
“Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that.”
In curiosity, Blade closed his book, set it on his cot, took in a deep breath and gave his cellmate his full attention. “Well, go on, then.”
“You remember that planet that was discovered several months ago?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Turns out my lawyer is the brother of the astronomer who discovered it. NASA is working on a mission to fly there, but they are having a hard time rounding up astronauts.”
“And how ‘xactly do they plan on flyin’ to a distant planet. Why… that’d take fo’ever to get there!”
“They’re going to hitch a ride on the comet that was discovered in conjunction with Earth2.”
Blade looked skeptical but waved on his partner.
“Well, they can’t find astronauts to do the job.”
“Mmm…” came the confused grunt of Blade. He was trying to figure out where this was all going.
“My lawyer suggested that I should take up NASA, and that way whether he is able to clear my name or not, by the time I return, I’d get a nice presidential pardon, admiration of the whole world, and an entry in history books fer ages to come.”
“How long’s the mission?” Slater inquired.
“Well, there would be training for about five years.”
“That’s some time!” Paol’s cellmate interrupted
“And then it would take a year to get to the planet, six and a half years there, and another five years to get back home.”
Blade easily and quickly worked the numbers in his head. “Why that’s twen’y years from now. No wonder they can’t staff that job. Such a foo’hearty thing to even think ‘bout it. And I s’pose ya’ done told him you’d think ‘bout it.” Blade shook his head and managed a hearty laugh.
“Not exactly—I told him I’d bring you with me.”
Blade’s laugh and smile vanished as quickly as the understanding registered. Growing disinterested in the conversation, he picked up a book, and said, “What was ya’ thinkin’? I ain’t doin’ somethin’ so foolish as that!”
Paol pulled his chair around in front of Blade’s and sat down to face him. “Look, Blade—this is an opportunity to do something no other man has done before. And you’ll get out of here as well.”
“Now, why would I wanna go off fo’ twen’y years, when I’ll be sprung from here in abouts five? It’s darn foolish, Paol.”
“So tell me, what do you think is going to happen when you do leave anyway?”
“Well, I’ll make me a respectable citizen. You know that!”
“Get me a job… have a family hopefully.”
“Blade, you have no education, and you’re a convicted felon. Who will hire you?”
“I’m educated—You know that.”
“I do—but they don’t. There’s no formal education to back you up.” Paol’s tone grew more serious, more important. “Look, Blade, think about what you’ll do for mankind—for the knowledge of science. Think of how much you’ll learn becoming an astronaut. That’s something you won’t learn by reading all of the books in the Library of Congress.”
“Paol, listen to ya’self. You got a family. Ya’ just can’t go off and leave ‘em fo’ twen’y years.”
“I could rot in here until I die, Blade. My family will be proud of my contribution. What do you plan on contributing before life is over, Blade?”
“Oh, I wanna contribute too, you know that. But, I think I can contribute in plenty of other ways to please my neighbors and my God.”
“God!” Paol snickered in derision. “I know you’ve been studying those world religion books, but look around you, Blade! There can’t be a God.”
“I think you’re wrong. There’s a God.”
“Why would a just God throw me in here, then?”
“I ‘spect it’s fo’ the same reason he gives all of us trials in this life of ours. Was it just of God to put me into a family in the ghetto, whereas some kids is put in the ‘burbs? What’s important is not that we have adversity but how we deal with it. We can choose to get better or we can choose to grow bitter.”
“So you think everything happens for a reason, huh? Everything is just as God would have it?”
“No, I don’t!” answered Blade in a deep voice. “Ever’thin’ is not as God‘d have it. God‘d not have us abusin’ little children. He’d not have us murderin’, stealin’, liein’.”
“Then why does he allow it to happen?” Paol asked incredulously.
Blade gave a deep breath, and reached under his pillow for the only book that he didn’t keep under his bed, but instead on top of it. It had a worn black cover, and thin, embossed sheets, which crinkled as he opened it to the place he desired. Reading from the page, he spoke in a confident tone:
See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil;
In that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments that thou mayest live and multiply: and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it.
But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them;
I denounce unto you this day that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land.
“It seems, Paol, God wants us to choose fer ourselves. It’s a test, Paol—to see who is worthy to live in His presence. He’ss given us commandments, and we just needs to choose. Look, I don’t know all the answers. That’s why I still read. But, what propels us as a race to survive, to thrive, to go fo’ward, if there’s no purpose to life? And how could there be purpose in life if there’s no purpose in death. Without somethin’ more, why do we do so much? As a race, we’ve had plenty a’ challenges—plenty a’ opportunities to just lay down and give it up. But we’ve never done that. Why not? I think it’s because there’s somethin’ inside us—a God-made spirit—that drives us.”
Paol thought for a moment, desiring to steer the conversation back on track. “If there is such a grand purpose, Blade, then think of what this mission could add to our knowledge of that purpose? Will we find another God-fearing people on Earth2? Will we understand better this universe really is made by intelligent design?”
Blade’s head stared at the concrete floor, his body expressionless.
“Blade, you told me that you wanted to make up for past mistakes—that you wanted to be a productive citizen of your country and community. What better opportunity than this mission? Think of how proud you’ll make your mother and your uncle!”
Invoking thoughts of his family, Blade replied with a choke in his voice, “If this could erase even a little bit a’ the hurt I gave ‘em, then it’ll be worth it. But, if I dies, then it would only make the hurt worse.”
“I’m not so sure,” Paol rebutted. “They would think of you as a hero. Even that legacy will erase the pain.”
Blade stood from his chair and slowly walked to the bars which held him back from the things he was eager to start doing in life. Paol remained seated, but his gaze was fixed on his cellmate with great interest. After staring off into the distance for a couple of minutes, he turned to face Paol. His look was stern, the eyes intent. Realizing he had no response to Paol’s last argument, he had to respond, “I’ll do it.”