One Way Ticket
The sun shone dimly over the red horizon, outlining strange rock formations miles off in the distance. Between Maxwell and these faint rocks, the valley expanded into oblivion, fading into the curve of the earth in every other direction. It was like sailing on a calm day in the middle of the Atlantic with a lone ghost ship teetering on the edge of the world. Maxwell was the only living thing on the planet, and he never felt that more than when he looked across its surface and saw almost nothing.
Any other morning, he would have been tucked beneath bedsheets in his dark chamber, unaware of any sunlight at all until Steven woke him for his daily tasks, but he had slept under the transparent dome among the algae gardens. Or rather attempted to sleep and failed. His eyes were wide open and gazing outward as the sun announced the new day.
Pulling himself to an upright position, he hugged his knees and rubbed his eyes. At this sign of movement, the screen behind him switched from standby mode. Steven appeared on the screen, wagging his cartoon dog tail. His dopey tongue hung out with animated drool dripping to the bottom edge of the screen and out into a virtual void.
“You’re up early,” Steven said. His voice was a product of an algorithm that combined the qualities of hundreds of cartoon dogs into one friendly, non-threatening voice. “Do you want me to make coffee?”
Maxwell scratched at the shaggy beard he had been growing the last few months, pulling at the knots that formed in it.
“No,” Maxwell said, looking again at the weak sun. It never seemed to emit nearly enough light. “Actually, yes.”
“It’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
Steven’s tail wagged a little faster now as he started this task. His tail never stopped wagging altogether, but it wagged faster and slower depending on the complexity of the task. Calculating the contents and percentages of a soil sample or compiling years of statistical data to present to Maxwell constituted some of the quickest wags. Dull tasks such as making food or transmitting data to or from Houston required only a slightly quickened wag rate.
Maxwell found the strength to stand up, and he walked inside the former space capsule he now called a home. In the kitchen, a hot mug of instant coffee awaited him as promised. He grabbed the mug, blowing at the steam, which whisked away and instantly reappeared like a persistent ghost.
“Steven, do we have any ice cubes?” Maxwell said. “I don’t feel like waiting for this coffee to cool.”
“I’m afraid I stopped producing them a few days ago,” Steven said, his cartoon face as happy as ever. “Water conservation. I suppose I can make a cube or two if you limit yourself to four and a quarter cups of water today.”
“Why would I care about water conservation?”
Steven blinked a few times, saying nothing. Maxwell was never sure if this was a learned behavior or something his programmers designed to waste time as he processed an appropriate answer.
“No, it’s fine,” Maxwell said. “This will be cool long before you finish making it.”
“Maybe for future cups?”
On the corner of Steven’s screen in the kitchen, a circle appeared with a “3” in bold red in the center. Maxwell touched the circle, and three alerts appeared in a box, obscuring Steven’s face.
· Task Checklist
· Resource Levels
· Video Conference Scheduled
Maxwell clicked on each one at a time before clicking on the circle again. The box minimized, the “3” turning from red to a friendly green to denote Maxwell had read the alerts. Steven waited on the screen, patiently anticipating a new command. The wag of his tail was barely perceptible.
Turning his back to Steven, Maxwell used the bathroom before pausing briefly next to his bed, resisting the sudden urge to curl under those comforting sheets and stay there for the rest of his life. He laughed, shaking his head at himself.
“What’s so funny?” Steven said from the kitchen. Early on, Maxwell made a rule that Steven wasn’t allowed in the sleeping chamber unless given permission. “Can I come in there to see?”
“It’s nothing,” Maxwell called back. “I’ll be right out.”
“You’ll at least tell me, though, right?”
“It’s a human joke. You wouldn’t understand.”
“This is because I’m a dog, huh?”
Maxwell smiled and went out to the algae gardens again, taking careful samples of each long bath of floating, green gunk. The artificial lights had turned on overhead, mimicking the light output this strand of algae required on Earth. He felt more cheerful under these lights. With the open sky overhead and the right amount of light between the sun and these fluorescents, it almost seemed like home except for the crushing loneliness and barren landscape.
He deposited the samples in a receptacle Steven held open in the small lab room inside. The lab was more of a supply closet than an actual room. In reality, Steven was the entire lab. Maxwell just collected things and put it in this receptacle. The dog’s tail wagged furiously as he worked.
Lounging in a chair in the kitchen, Maxwell stared for a moment at Steven then asked if he’d put a show on the screen.
“Are you sure you have time for that?” Steven said, his cartoon face displaying mock concern. “You still need to collect samples from three remote sites and write your report before the conference.”
“I’m aware,” Maxwell said. “Play that episode of Seinfeld where Cranston is a dentist or something. Do we have that one?”
“If you insist.”
He half-watched the episode, finishing the dregs of his now lukewarm coffee. It tasted metallic, and bits of the powder used to make it stuck against the side of his mouth. The bottom of the mug always had these powder chunks. It was one thing he wouldn’t miss.
When the show was over, Steven appeared briefly until the checklist popped up again on the screen. It was the dog’s passive-aggressive way of urging Maxwell to start his next task. He took the hint, dressing in his spacesuit and heading into the airlock.
Outside, the ATV sat next to the airlock, just on the other side of the dome. He couldn’t quite see into the dome. The sun hit it in such a way that a glare gave the algae gardens a measure of privacy like condensation clinging to the clear glass of a shower. He strapped his equipment bag to the ATV and straddled the seat, pressing the ignition button.
A head’s up display on the inside glass of his helmet marked three points in the endless red valley of iron oxide infused dirt. He quickly and mindlessly followed the waypoint markers to each point, mechanically taking soil samples. The ATV itself tested the atmosphere at different each point.
Technically, the ATV was a little piece of Steven and his lab that Maxwell just happened to use for transportation. After he was gone, it would drive itself to different points and take soil samples itself, but the robotic arm device that did this was less efficient than Maxwell’s human arms and hands. Some scientists back on Earth made some calculations in a desert that determined it was worth the added fuel consumption to let him ride along and take the samples himself. Besides, they decided, it might help him from going insane.
At the last site, he procured the sample and set it snugly in the bag. He could see a small crater a little ways off, and he began walking toward it. After a short while, he realized the crater was larger and further off than he calculated. The vast emptiness of the valley made it difficult to tell distance and scale. Still, he already started walking, and it was there – a concrete destination to explore.
“This location is not on the checklist,” Steven said through the small speaker in Maxwell’s helmet. “Feel free to turn back around.”
“I just want to check out this crater,” Maxwell said, picking up his pace.
“You’re already a little behind schedule, and today’s really not the day…”
“Shut up,” Maxwell grunted. “Shut the fuck up. I’m going to this fucking crater.”
“You could have at least taken the ATV.”
“Then you would have complained about the fuel.”
“You’re right,” Steven said cheerfully. “I would have.”
When Maxwell reached the crater, he sat on the edge, his feet dangling into its massive bowl. His eyes started to water, and he raised his hands to brush the tears away but his helmet was in the way. He let them smear the glass, the red abyss around him becoming a hazy apparition. It looked like the entire planet was covered in blood and fire.
He tried to remember why exactly he came here. Not the details of the mission, which was a simple next step in the exploration of Mars, but how he felt when he decided. Winston had called him into his office. He couldn’t remember what the day was like. Sunny, he thought, and then he couldn’t remember what that was like either.
Bradford was in the office, too, and they were both smiling when they told him the details. That was the constant in his life – everyone was always smiling at him. They exuded joy as they raved about the first manned mission to Mars, and Maxwell glared back at them, unsure but a part of him excited.
“You probably idolize Neil Armstrong, right?” Winston said.
“Not really,” Maxwell grumbled.
“Good,” Bradford chimed in, grabbing Maxwell’s shoulder in jovial bliss. “Fuck Neil Armstrong. The moon is right there. It’s just another satellite in our orbit. This, though… This…”
“It’s history,” Winston said. “When those old school guys talked about space exploration, this is what they had in mind.”
“Neil Armstrong was a pansy. What’s so dangerous about going to the moon and then most likely coming back alive?”
Maxwell swallowed hard, feeling the air he gulped churn in his stomach. He pounded a fist against his chest and hoped he circumvented a case of the hiccups.
“Do you need water?” Winston said, and he stood up to pour a cup from the wet bar in the corner of his office. He placed it on the side table next to Maxwell’s chair.
“Thanks,” Maxwell said, sipping at the cup. “How long would I be up there?”
“The rest of your life,” Bradford said, chuckling until Winston punched him in the arm.
“We’re not making light of this,” Winston said. “This is just how Bradford deals with awkward situations, you know that.”
“Right,” Bradford said, and he rubbed his arm. “It would be about ten years…ish. There are a lot of factors that go into it.”
Maxwell would find out how many factors, indeed. It depended on how much he breathed. What shape he was in. How much oxygen the algae gardens produced. A certain amount of leakage despite a mostly air tight capsule. Maybe a host of other factors he never considered and would never know.
“And here’s the thing,” Winston added. “Who knows what will happen with technology in those ten years. There’s always the chance we will figure out a way…”
“Let’s not make those kinds of statements just yet,” Bradford interrupted.
“Couldn’t you send unmanned supply ships or something?” Maxwell said.
“Absolutely not,” Bradford snorted. “Do you realize how expensive that would be? This is the mission, as is. We had a hard enough time getting Congress to sign off on this expense as it is.”
“I don’t know,” Maxwell said, looking past the two men and out the window behind them. It was a view of the NASA parking lot, grand and full. “I’m going to have talk to Stacy about it.”
But by the time he got home, he had already decided, beaming with excitement that he’d be the first person to ever set foot on that far off red planet. He imagined what it would be like touching that beautiful, strangely colored ground for the first time. He tingled with anticipation.
Stacy was in the backyard, planting tomatoes. He watched her heart break as he told her, and still his ear to ear grin was only cut off when Stacy shouted, “Are you fucking kidding me?” and they descended into a nightmare screaming match.
Maxwell didn’t want to remember that fight, so he picked up a fistful of soil next to him and tossed it into the crater, his helmet still too wet for him to see it tumble a few feet down its curved slope.
“I’m sorry to intrude,” Steven said. “But you really need to return.”
“I know,” Maxwell said. “I know.”
He had Steven control the ATV for the ride back, just a limp body positioned on the seat with his arms draped loosely over the handlebars. It came to a stop just outside the airlock, and he dismounted clumsily, stumbling when his foot caught on the seat. He caught his balance against the capsule. The airlock door opened, and he stepped inside, feeding what was left of his oxygen tank back into the main supply.
After depositing the soil samples in the lab, he sat down to write his daily report, breathing heavily in bursts. Holding his breath to try to slow his breathing.
“Remember, slow, consistent breathes conserves more oxygen,” Steven chimed.
“Go to hell, Steven,” Maxwell said.
He rushed through the report, leaving out the minute details he usually wrote with an explorer’s zeal. Turning off the electronic tablet, he pushed it away from him. It clanged loudly against the wall. On the screen, Steven frowned, but his tail wagged incessantly. He was compiling the sample data.
Somehow Maxwell found himself ahead of schedule again despite his best attempts to procrastinate. He felt like a kid on the last day of school, waiting impatiently for that final bell. Even though he loved school and never ever wanted to leave, now that all his work was done, he hated the wait.
“Is there any way we can start this video conference early?” Maxwell said. “I mean, maybe they’re already there.”
“Let me check,” Steven said
Maxwell bit at frayed nubs he called fingernails, long ago chewed to almost nothing. A slight taste of blood formed in his mouth, and he looked down at the middle finger on which he’d been gnawing. Red liquid pooled under the nail and leaked out just a little.
Suddenly the screen blinked, and his family appeared on a grainy display with a haphazard framerate. His mother, father and much younger sister grinned fake smiles their wet, red eyes betrayed. As they moved, they jumped slightly on the screen from the delay, their gestures like a jerky stop motion video.
“Hi Maxwell!” they said brightly in unison.
The audio came through quicker than the video, and it seemed like they were trying to make their mouths copy what their disembodied voices had just said. It was unsettling as if these were doppelganger family members, unable to figure out how to force their sound and movements to work together.
“Where’s Stacy?” Maxwell said. “I know I started this early. Is she coming?”
His mother and father exchange sympathetic glances, and his father cleared his throat.
“She couldn’t make it,” his father said. “I’m sorry, buddy.”
“She has her new…” his mother stopped short. “She didn’t think it was a good idea.”
Maxwell tried to hold it back, but he started crying again. This time, he could cover his face with his hands, sobbing heavily. He looked up, and his family was all crying, too, but the forced grins were still plastered across their sad faces.
“I’m graduating soon,” his sister finally said. “Salutatorian.”
“What?” Maxwell forced through his sobs. “You couldn’t manage valedictorian?”
His sister smiled a true smile this time and snorted.
“No,” she said. “The asshole who got valedictorian is a Communications major. That’s not even a real degree.”
“Well, check back with him in ten years and see who is more successful then.”
They all fell silent again, and his family looked back and forth at each other, seemingly searching for something else to say.
“We’re all so proud of you,” his mother said. “I want you to know that. We’re proud of you, and oh god, did I say ‘we love you’ yet? We do.”
“We love you,” his sister and father added immediately.
“I fucked up,” Maxwell said.
“Don’t say that,” his father said.
“I did. I fucked up. I don’t want to die. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say that,” his father repeated. “This was important. You’re going to die… You’re going to die with meaning. What you’ve done for science…”
“Can you tell Stacy I’m sorry, too? I know she thought I was trying to get away from her or something. I thought this was important, but please. Tell her she was more important. Tell her I loved her.”
Steven appeared superimposed over his family on the screen, tail still moving rapidly.
“Get the fuck off the screen, Steven,” Maxwell shouted.
“I’m sorry, but oxygen levels are critical,” Steven said. “You consumed it at a higher rate than anticipated. You have a few minutes.”
Steven disappeared from the screen, leaving Maxwell’s horrified family alone on the screen again. Their grim faces threatening to shatter completely at any moment.
“I guess you heard him,” Maxwell said.
“We’re so sorry,” his mother cried. “We love you.”
“Ten years, and this is it. Now that it’s happening, I don’t know. I feel numb.”
“I love you, buddy,” his father said.
“I love you,” his sister added, shaking her long hair into her eyes.
“I love you all, too,” Maxwell said, and he paused trying to think of the right thing to add. “Bye.”
He touched the screen, and his family vanished. Steven sat with his tail wagging as slowly as it ever wagged, a frown on his dog face.
“Can you stop wagging your tail?” Maxwell said. “Just for the next few minutes?”
“Sure,” Steven said. “I don’t have to wag my tail. It’s a programmed visual feedback so you are aware I am wor…”
“Thank you,” Maxwell interjected.
He stood up from his chair in front of the screen and stumbled his way to his sleeping chamber. The door closed behind him with a whoosh. Crawling into bed, he pulled the sheets over his face despite the already total darkness of the room.
The persistent sound of air moving through the ventilation ducts stopped. Quieter than quiet. Darker than dark. Maxwell felt his chest tighten as he asphyxiated on nothing.
Steven noted the date and time and added it to Maxwell’s report. He didn’t think Maxwell would mind.