From Mars with Love part 1

I’m going to try something different here. I’ve had a short story that I’ve been sitting on for awhile. It’s gone through a few stages of editing but never reached a final state that both me and my editor are happy with. I’ve had a number of friends and family read it and the response is almost universal; they really liked it but it was just missing something. That “something” is always different for every person.

So, instead of revising it for the 10th+ time or putting it into a drawn never to be seen again, I going to release it a piece at a time here on the blog. It will come out in three parts over the month of August. It’s fairly long for a short story (7100 words) which is a bit much for a single blog post.

This will serve a few purposes: To give the story a larger reading audience and to try out releasing short stories on the blog. It’s in a very different style/genre than “Aristeia”. So without further ado, part one of “From Mars with Love”…

From Mars with Love

Part 1

Michael Coburn stared at the alarm clock. It was not set to go off for several more minutes, but he had already been staring at it for over an hour. Today was the day he had been dreading for years. He’d always known it might come, but until very recently, it had seemed like something that would always stay safely in the future.

Looking beside him, Michael watched his wife, Jennifer, sleeping soundly. Seeing her lay there, with her mouth open slightly and a trickle of drool on her pillow, made him smile. She would have found it ghastly to see herself like that. He found it cute, and it reminded him how much he loved her.

Normally, when something on his mind kept him up at night, he would wake Jennifer up and talk to her. She wouldn’t always be a coherent conversationalist, but she would always listen. Just having her listen was usually enough. Now, she was the last one in the world he could talk to.

Today was the day Jennifer found out if she would be selected to be part of the crew for the first manned mission to Mars – a three-year trip that Michael could not join her for. She had been training her entire life for this chance.

The alarm clock suddenly sounded, filling the peaceful quiet with its ear-shattering sound. Jumping out of bed, Jennifer slammed her hand down on the alarm, silencing it. She then stumbled to the bathroom. Michael knew she wasn’t really awake yet, so he said nothing. Getting up himself, he walked to the kitchen to start the coffee and feed the dog.

Half an hour later, Jennifer walked into the kitchen, freshly showered and dressed for work. Michael had laid out cold cereal for her along with her coffee, while he browsed the web for the morning’s news. She kissed him on the forehead as she passed. Despite it being summer and him having no history classes to teach, or grad students to supervise, and therefore no reason to be up this early, they still continued this morning ritual.

They ate in silence for a while, though Jennifer mainly poked at her food. Finally Michael, looking up from his screen, said, “Something wrong with your Cheerios?”

“No. Just not very hungry. And kind of nauseous.”

“Maybe you’re pregnant,” Michael joked. They had considered having children a few years before. That had been before the Mars mission had become a real possibility.

“Not funny,” she said, pushing her cereal away. “Well, I shouldn’t put this off any longer.”

Standing up with her, Michael gave her a strong hug. “Give me a call when they make the announcement?”

“You can count on it,” Jennifer said, still looking sick.

After she left, Michael didn’t have much to do. He found himself putzing around the house, doing some odds and ends, cleaning, turning the TV on without watching it. Very soon, his wife would be calling him either in tears or exuberant that she would be leaving him for three years. He knew it wasn’t as crass as that, and that the separation would be difficult for her as well, but he couldn’t help but think it.

When Michael had met Jennifer, they had both been grad students. Immediately captivated by her, she had held her apart, despite the initial signs of mutual attraction. Her passion for going to space had driven her to obtain multiple science and engineering degrees. This had left little time for a social life. It took a while, but eventually he found a way to get some of that passion transferred to himself.

From the very beginning of their relationship, she had made it clear that her priorities lay with getting to space: Mars, preferably. At the time, space exploration had been in a deep lull. When they had both been teenagers,America’s manned flight ability had come to an end with the termination of the space shuttle program. By the time they finished school, there still was no replacement vehicle. Despite that, Jennifer signed up to be an astronaut. While other astronauts and potential astronauts were looking for work with many of the new commercial space companies, she wanted to work with NASA. She had always wanted more than just going into orbit, and she firmly believed NASA would be the way to do it.

Despite knowing he would never want to be apart from her for years, Michael had accepted this condition when he asked Jennifer to marry him. It had not appeared remotely possible that she would ever get the chance to go to Mars, so he didn’t think he would ever have to face it. Her passion for it was part of what he loved about her, so he also had no desire to be part of squashing her dreams.

Now the world had changed. What had once seemed only a distant and impossible dream was now a very real possibility, and it terrified him. On the other hand, it wasn’t a sure thing yet.  Being this close to achieving her dream and then failing would devastate her. As much as he didn’t want to be apart from her, he thought it might be even worse to see her go through that.

 

When the phone finally rang, Michael’s heart stopped briefly. Taking a deep breath, he picked up the phone and then sighed. It was his mother calling, undoubtedly to find out the news and to comfort him either way. Deciding he really didn’t want to talk to her, he let the call go to voice mail.

A minute after the phone finished ringing it, it rang again. Grumbling, Michael assumed it was his mother trying again. She did that sometimes when she thought he should have picked up the phone. When he finally looked at the phone, Michael was momentarily shocked to see that it was his wife calling. He froze for a second in panic before finally accepting the call. Tentatively, he said hello.

“I’m in!” came Jennifer’s squeal of glee. “You’re talking to the primary engineering specialist for the Mars mission!”

Michael felt his heart sink. “Honey, that’s great,” he forced himself to say. He knew his voice lacked enthusiasm. Fortunately, Jennifer, in her excitement, didn’t notice. He was able to push his feelings of loss down, and focus on being excited for her.

Michael spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for himself. He was happy with their life. Aside from occasional training sessions outside of Houston or the rare missions to the ISS, he always had Jennifer beside him. Those few missions she had been on had rarely been longer than four months. That had made them difficult, but tolerable. By contrast, this mission would be more than two years in space and almost another year of quarantine and prep time.

They would, at least, be able to communicate via time-delayed video chat for most of her trip.  He knew this would ease the loneliness.  But it just wasn’t going to be the same as having her there with him.

By the early evening, he was feeling so grumpy that he almost didn’t turn on the official announcement. When he did, he saw Jennifer sitting behind the table next to the NASA director, along with the other selected astronauts. The look of pure joy and excitement on her face finally broke through his shell of grumpiness.

By the time Jennifer got home later that night, Michael was ready to celebrate like any happily married couple should: by skipping dinner and going straight to bed. After several hours of passionate love-making and intimate cuddling, Jennifer broached the topic of how he felt about the news.

Now that the decision was made, and he had come to accept it, Michael felt more comfortable with being honest. “At first, at first, I was sad. You know I don’t like the idea of you being gone for three years. A lot can happen in three years. And going to another planet — that does not lack for risks.”

Jennifer gave him a slight frown as he spoke, but Michael continued before she could raise the usual argument. “But that was just me being selfish. This mission is your dream, and I am happy, genuinely happy, that you’re getting to achieve it.”

Nodding, Jennifer hugged him. “I know this won’t be easy on you. And I wish there was a need for history professors onboard. But I’m glad you understand.”

“Well, it’s a historic mission, after all. Maybe they should bring a historian. I could always take someone else’s seat. What does a space mission need with scientists?” Michael said with a cheesy smile, which Jennifer returned with a reluctant laugh.

 

The next few months passed in a whirlwind.  Jennifer was often away for long periods undergoing intense training. The fall semester started, and Michael went back to teaching history to bored undergrads. With his wife going to be gone for much of the next three years, he finally pushed himself to apply for a research grant that would send him to be buried in old libraries acrossEurope.

On the night before Jennifer would begin her period in quarantine, they together in bed. Despite this being the last night they would spend together for three years, neither appeared to be in a romantic mood. An awkward tension hung in the air.

“You know I love you, right?” Jennifer said quietly..

“Of course,” Michael said, as he stroked her hair.

“I don’t want to leave you, you know?”

“I know.”

Very quietly, Jennifer said, “When I get back, we should have kids.”

Michael smiled. They both knew that NASA would not send the same astronauts off-planet again, which made kids a real possibility after this trip.  He had been hoping for kids for a long time and had been disappointed to have had to put them off. They would be older than he wished to be as new parents, but people were living longer these days. When their kids graduated high school, he wouldn’t be completely falling apart… just mostly.

“That would be great.”

Quiet resumed for several minutes. There seemed to be something hanging in the air unsaid. Michael considered asking, but he knew that if he said anything, it wouldn’t get him anywhere. Jennifer would only talk when she was ready.

After a while, she finally said, “I’ve been trying to decide if I should tell you this or not. But I don’t think I can go without telling you.”

The cryptic statement confused Michael. Hundreds of different possibilities raced through his head. Mundane things, like that she didn’t actually like dogs as much as she claimed. Old insecurities that he hadn’t had for years, like that she had been unfaithful, flashed through his head. He dismissed all of these stray thoughts and waited for her to continue.

“Remember when, right before they announced the crew, you joked that I might be pregnant?”

“No, not really,” Michael answered, truthfully. He didn’t remember much of that day aside from the annoying mix of worry, guilt and excitement.

“Well, I wasn’t, then. But about two months ago, during a routine exam while I was at Edwards, the flight surgeon told me that I was pregnant,” Jennifer said. That simple statement shocked Michael. He was still trying to decide if he had heard her right, when she continued, “I had a choice right then. I could keep the baby and drop out of the mission or get an abortion. SinceTexasstill won’t allow them, I had to do it before I leftCalifornia.”

The news that Jennifer had had an abortion without telling him left Michael feeling dizzy and unable to speak. Unlike the majority of Texans, Michael had never had any problem with abortions, particularly early-term ones. In theory, at least, an abortion was a woman’s choice, and an early one was nothing more than killing a few cells. Now, the news that he had almost had a child made him suddenly question that acceptance.

Jennifer continued talking, tears running down her cheek onto his bare shoulder. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to tell you, knowing how much you want kids. I was going away from you for years, and to do so I would have to kill our future child. But I was selfish. I didn’t want to give up my dream, and I didn’t want to have to tell you.”

Michael lay there in silence for a long time. Inside, he wasn’t sure how he actually felt. She had opened up to him, and while he didn’t like what she had said, or the timing, he kept telling himself that it was better that she had told him. He was a firm believer that secrets in a relationship would surely kill it.

“I understand why you did it,” Michael said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.

The hurt look that crossed Jennifer’s face made it clear that he hadn’t been very successful. Irritated that now he was the one who had to comfort her, he reminded himself that, regardless of anything else, he still loved Jennifer, and this would be their last night together for a long time. He knew she wanted him to forgive her, but right now, he was not capable of that.

Michael touched her cheek and said, “I may not like it, and I’m not happy that you didn’t talk to me first, but I do still love you.”

It wasn’t forgiveness, but it appeared to be enough for Jennifer. She leaned in and kissed him, and then squeezed in very close. They spent the rest of the night in silence, eventually falling asleep in each other’s arms.

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2 Responses to From Mars with Love part 1

  1. JediRabbit says:

    That’s great so far. You inspire me to write. I look forward to more of this story. REally good stuff!