The morning before launch, a scientist ponders what he's leaving behind.
|She was standing by the open garbage can, peeling a hard-boiled egg. The early morning sunlight barely filtered through the curtain over the sink, leaving the details of her face half-shrouded as she worked her thumb under the fragile shell and peeled it away. Not that I needed to see details to know her face. I came up behind her to put my hands on her hips, rested my chin against the top of her head and she held up the peeled egg to me. “Egg?” she asked.
“Naw, I’m good.”
“Egg?” she repeated as if I hadn’t spoken and I smiled. She was passionately stubborn about eating first thing in the morning. Something about blood sugar regulation.
“I’ll get something with coffee.”
“Eat the damn egg, Trevor.”
I sighed and opened my mouth as she blindly shoved the peeled egg at my face. When it was halfway into my mouth, I stepped back from her so my hands were free. I bit the hard-boiled egg in half and chewed the firm, silky white around a yolk perfectly cooked without a hint of greenish dryness. I would never understand how she managed to always cook eggs perfectly. Mine were always inedible. “Thank you,” I mumbled around the egg.
“You’re welcome.” She settled her hip against the counter and began to peel a second egg. “How did you sleep?”
I shrugged, still chewing. The truth was I hadn’t slept well at all. Today was the last day I would spend with her before boarding an interplanetary jump ship that would take me and three hundred crew and scientists to the Mars colony site. I had been working for this my entire career, to be among the first boots on that far planet and spend the rest of my life building something right out of the Doctor Who episodes I’d watched as a kid. Now that I was actually looking at leaving, though, Earth had never seemed so beautiful.
Bee had never looked so beautiful. My honeybee.
As my wife, she was my designated plus-one. It wasn’t like she couldn’t come out there to be with me. She could leave her life here behind, jump for the stars and land in my arms and we could be among the first couples in history to have a child off-planet. We had talked about it a lot in the last few years.
She just had so much more to lose. She had a career she loved, a job that she had worked for just as hard as I had this one. She had family, a brother in Sacramento, her mother in Milwaukee. She had a flock of chickens scratching in the back yard and a pregnant cat in her horse barn. I couldn’t ask her to come with me. I couldn’t make her choose between me and her whole world. I finished my egg and came back to put my hands on her hips again, drawing her to me as she leaned back against my chest. Today was the last day I had with her before losing her forever. I wanted to make it count.
“Come riding with me,” I whispered into her hair. “We’ll pack a picnic, a bottle of wine. Let’s go somewhere nobody will find us.”
Bee chuckled and leaned her head back on my shoulder. “You have a communications chip implanted in your skull and integrated into your nervous system, Trey. There’s nowhere we can go where nobody can find us.” She bit into her peeled egg and chewed while I brooded. She was right, of course. I just wanted that illusion of freedom even if it was only for a few hours.
“Please,” I whispered.
She reached back with one hand to stroke my face and I kissed the inside of her wrist. “I have two clients coming this afternoon,” she murmured, “and Doctor Belbey is coming out to look at that infection on Maggie’s leg. I really can’t today.”
“All I’ve got is today.”
Bee’s back stiffened and she pulled away from me. I wanted to hold her tight, to apologize for reminding her but the words were said and I let her go. She shoved the garbage can shut with more force than its self-propelled hinges required and went to the coffee pot without looking at me. “Did you want coffee?”
She filled the basket with fresh grounds, added filtered water to the reservoir, turned on the burner and stepped back to watch as the little machine popped and growled its way toward the black gold that kept us both moving in the morning. I carefully slipped my hands over her hips again, as wary as I was approaching any of the horses. She didn’t move away but she didn’t relax, either. “I know,” she said softly. “You think I don’t know?” She leaned back against my chest and I curled my arms around her, holding her. “You’ve been working for this for so long, Trey. I’m so proud of you.” I stroked her hair and she turned suddenly to wrap her arms around my neck and kiss me.
I held her close and felt tears slipping down my cheeks. “Is this useful to you?” I asked her, unable to keep the bitter words inside. It was her guiding star, the ultimate point of her life: to be useful to the world. “Is letting me go useful? Because it’s not to me. I want you there.”
Bee sighed and cupped her hands to my face. “I have to stay where I can be of the most use,” she whispered and I heard the pain at the edge of her voice this time. “Just like you do. You’re most useful being you up there, intelligent and brash and ready to explore the galaxy. I’m most useful here for now.”
I rested my forehead against hers with my eyes closed, thinking about the frozen horse embryos in storage on the ship. They were from Bee’s therapy horses, one of my stipulations for agreeing to be in the first wave. She had been breeding them for years, beautiful, gentle, sassy creatures with a humorous intelligence and the patience to wait for a rider to overcome a panic attack no matter how short or long the ride had been. I would have stock for a herd, two stallions and eight mares. My commander had been baffled by the request but considering they couldn’t exactly find a better hydroponics specialist without hiring out of the country, I got my horses. At least I would have that much of Bee with me.
My communication system buzzed in my skull and I winced. “Sonnen,” I replied, flicking my eyes to accept the call.
“Good morning, Captain,” said one of the handlers for the mission. “We were hoping you could come in for a final check on your suit fitting today.”
My abrupt answer made the woman on the other end of the call pause like I had pulled a script out of her hand and thrown it over my shoulder. “I… sir, we need you to come in. There won’t be time for this check before liftoff tomorrow.”
“Then you should have done it earlier.”
Bee had turned away from me to pour the coffee into mugs and I pushed my face into her hair, refusing to think about being unable to touch her again. Five years ago, she found me broken and bruised at the bottom of a cliff with a dead horse crushing my legs. The filly had taken a bad step and neither of us had seen the bottom coming. The horse had been hers, a rental and she grieved that horse for days while we waited for a hospital lift to arrive for me. Her ranch was one of the last places on Earth without easy road access, part of the reason her trail rides were so popular.
“Sir,” the handler said in my head and I growled at her. “Commander Ellis is willing to negotiate space in the cryotanks if you’re willing to come in today. He said to tell you that you can have four more slots for whatever you like. We really need you to come in for this check.”
I swore under my breath and Bee sighed, turned in my arms and drew my face down to hers as she kissed me again. “Go,” she whispered. “You need to. I know. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay.” I muted the call with a flick of my hand. “I am not letting them bully me out of today. Today’s all I’ve got.” Bee smiled sadly and I cradled her face in my palms. “I’m not wasting a second, no matter how many cryo slots Ellis offers me.”
Bee’s eyes widened. “He offered you more slots?” I tried to dismiss it but she pulled my face back to hers and kissed me hard. “You could take Emily’s kittens, Trevor. Belbey thinks she has three. You can take her in stasis with you and freeze the kittens.”
I looked at her and felt my heart breaking. She knew how much I loved cats. Emily, the barn cat wouldn’t allow anyone else close to her, which was why she was pregnant in the first place; our traveling vet had been unable to get her under sedation for spaying. “I have eighteen hours,” I whispered, feeling the emotion in my throat like dust and gravel, “and then I’m gone. Gone, Bee.” I traced her soft lips with my thumb. “Three kittens and a cranky barn cat are not worth eighteen hours with you.”
“Any females she has will probably be calico.”
I choked on a laugh and leaned down to kiss her. “You’re a sadist.”
“Knew it when you married me.”
“It’s still not worth it.”
Bee sighed and wrapped her arms around my neck. She stood up on her toes, desperate to close the massive distance between us. She was so short and I was so tall. I still had to stoop to meet her mouth as I held her tightly. “When the herd is ready for breeding, I’ll come,” she whispered.
I stared at her. “What?”
“I was going to just send you fresh genetics, new embryos. But I’ll use my pass to come instead, bring them myself when you’re ready to start breeding,” she reiterated and grinned at the shock in my face. Tears blurred her smile in my vision and I kissed her again, unable to believe she was serious. “Take the kittens,” she whispered against my lips. “Go do whatever it is they want you to do. I love you, Trevor. I’ll see you in fifteen months.” She sank into my arms, then leaned back with a sly smile. “Did you seriously think you could get rid of me so easily?”
“I love you so much, Bee,” I choked and she laughed, running her fingers through my hair.
“Maybe I can be just as useful on Mars as I am here,” she whispered and kissed me again, lingering. “Come drink a cup of coffee with me. And let that poor handler know you’ll be there by noon.”
“Oh shit.” I waved my hand to pull the handler out of mute while Bee’s laughter filled my ears, the most beautiful sound on Earth.
Soon to be the most beautiful sound on Mars.
Word Count: 1896