From Mars with Love part 2

Part two of my short story. You can find part 1 here.

From Mars with Love

Part 2

The next morning, Michael tried to forget about the abortion revelation. Jennifer was leaving forJohnsonSpaceCenterearly and he focused his time on just being with her. She appeared as if a great burden had been lifted from her, and he didn’t want to put another one in its place by renewing her sense of guilt.

The departure was difficult, but after several last-minute hugs, they finally got into the car. It was quiet during the drive to JSC. They weren’t much for public displays of affection, so their goodbyes once there were brief. Once he was outside the gates and back on the road, Michael could hardly hold back the tears. Fortunately, the drive to their house was short.

Waiting for him at the door was their dog, Ares. Michael was grateful not to have to come home to an empty house. Sensing his emotional state, the big mutt refused to go outside, instead trying to keep herself close to him. Finally giving into the dog and his feelings, Michael dropped to the floor and let himself cry into Ares’ fur.

The next month passed quickly. Michael started preparing for his research trip toEurope. Getting the house ready to sit empty for a year took up a lot of his time, and then he had to take Ares to his sister’s. He and Jennifer talked every night over video chat or on the phone. Those conversations had never been anywhere near as good as talking in person, but he knew he should get used to them.

When launch day arrived, Michael flew down toFlorida. As a spouse, he got front-row seating. Seeing the kids of some of the other astronauts reminded him of what he had missed out on. Fortunately, he was surrounded by people, many of them his friends, and he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Today’s launch would take the Mars crew up to the ISS. There, the Mars ship Challenger was docked. Too massive to be launched whole, the ship had been built in orbit in a recent expansion to the ISS. Parts were already being loaded into rockets so that construction of a second ship, Columbia, could begin construction as soon as the space was clear. The two ships had been named in honor of the two shuttles that had been lost in terrible accidents. Michael hoped the names weren’t prescient.

Being with the crowd filled Michael with a sense of excitement. Humans were about to launch for a new world for the first time – a world that, unlike the moon, could not even be seen with the naked eye as anything more than a dot in the sky. And his wife was going to be one of the first humans to walk on another planet. That sobering thought filled him with a sense of pride that overshadowed any lingering sadness or worry.

As the rocket prepared for lift-off, the crowd eagerly began counting down. In their excitement, they frequently got ahead of the launch control official. There was almost a full second’s difference between the crowd’s excited shout of ‘one’ and the official time. With eager anticipation, Michael and the crowd watched a sudden flash of smoke and steam obscure the launch vehicle before it became visible again in the air, riding on a stream of fire.

There were hugs and tears all around, the family and spouses of the space-bound astronauts comforting and congratulating each other. The incredible roar of the engines sent some of the younger children into tears, which only added to the mix of emotions. They were there in the hot, humid,Floridasun long after the rocket was no longer visible.

#

Michael’s flight for Europe was scheduled for the next day, so he could not return to Houstonto be in Mission Control when Challenger actually left orbit, but he didn’t mind. Compared to the launch from Kennedy, the departure of Challenger from orbit would be anti-climatic. There was some impressive video footage all over the web as the great ship undocked from the ISS, but that was almost a day before they actually broke orbit.

By the time Challenger left orbit, Michael had arrived in Europe atHeidelbergUniversity inGermany. In addition to granting him the honor of doing research at such a historic institution asHeidelberg, the grant had allowed him to select two grad students to assist him. From the host of applicants, he had finally settled on Kristina and Julian. Both were young and excited to be digging through old texts looking for lost references to theHoly Roman Empire.

For Michael, his world shrank down to a small area there inGermany. Until he found an apartment, his room at the Arthotel was within walking distance of the University Library. Kristina and Julian tried to get him to spend some evenings with them exploring the old town, but he declined. The time zone there made the evenings the ideal time to try to contact Jennifer.

During the journey to Mars, the excitement expressed by Jennifer kept Michael engaged.  Using the plasma VASMIR engine designed by a former astronaut, the trip was a mere forty days – miniscule, considering the distance.Missionplans had once called for a journey of six to eight months. The new engine allowed for a journey not much longer than it had taken Europeans to cross theAtlanticwhen they were first exploring the western hemisphere. While orbital mechanics still made the shortest distances between the planets occur every two years, the new engine allowed most of that time to be spent on Mars instead of traveling to or from it.

The final arrival on Mars and the undocking of Challenger’s landing craft was a unique time. The whole world became consumed by anticipation. Despite Challenger being a primarily American plan, the entire world had contributed to its funding, design, resources, and crew. Of the fifteen-person crew, only four were American, including Jennifer. There were three people from the European Union, three fromChina, one fromIndia, one fromBrazil, two fromRussia, and one fromJapan.

As the husband of one of the crew, Michael was a minor celebrity at the university. He received several invitations to parties to watch the live stream of the first landing. He brushed all of them off, including Kristina and Julian’s plans to watch from a party at a biergarten.  He was hoping to watch from the quiet of his hotel room. If something tragic happened, he didn’t want to be around people. But when the head of the faculty of philosophy and history invited him to his home for a viewing party, he couldn’t refuse.

At the party, many people talked about comparing this to the first moon landing, though it was so long ago that no one there remembered it.  Michael’s parents had only been infants when Apollo landed on the moon, so they had never had any insight to give him on comparing the two events. He had never thought to ask his grandparents, who were dead now, what it had been like to watch that milestone unfold before them.

The anticipation and excitement in the air as the images streamed back to Earth were almost palpable. As the mission’s primary engineer and expert on the ship itself, Jennifer was not one of the first ones to actually walk on Mars’ surface. That first honor went to mission commander John Kelly. She would get her chance, though; unlike poor Michael Collins during Apollo 11, no one would be left orbiting Mars alone for the next twenty months.

After the initial excitement of watching the first people walk on the surface of Mars, Michael was able to slip away from the party. He returned to his apartment and sent a congratulatory message to Jennifer. She was undoubtedly very busy, so he was not surprised that he did not get a reply that night.

#

Over the next few months, Michael spent more and more hours working with Kristina and Julian. They finally convinced him to join them for an evening out.  As Earth and Mars got further and further apart, the conversations he had with Jennifer devolved into brief messages. When replies took forty minutes — twenty minutes for a message to get there and twenty minutes for the response to get back — it made actual conversations impossible. Instead of sitting around in his hotel room exchanging multiple messages, Michael started to just send a single message each evening and then go join his grad students.

As the time delay continued, frustration at the difficulty of talking with Jennifer developed, and their conversations grew shorter. The messages Jennifer sent him became less excited as they got more into the monotonous work of running experiments. His messages to her grew shorter as the routine of research gave him little to talk about.

During this time, Julian started dating one of the local students, which meant Michael and Kristina started spending a lot of time alone together. For her part, Kristina refused to get close to any of the locals, telling Michael she had to focus on her studies. He found it ridiculous; Jennifer had been the same way until he had shown her there was more to life. But he said nothing to Kristina. His role was as her educational advisor, not life coach.

By the time New Year’s Eve came, it had been more than a year since he had last seen Jennifer in person. Michael spent the evening at a fellow professor’s party. When midnight rolled around, he found himself beside Kristina. Unexpectedly, she leaned over and kissed him.

The kiss should have been an innocent tradition, but they held it for a few seconds too long. It had been a year since Michael had any intimate contact with another human being, and it felt good. The slight flush in Kristina’s cheeks told him she had felt something, too.

After that supposedly innocent kiss, Michael found himself having highly inappropriate daydreams about Kristina. After meeting Jennifer, he had never really been attracted to any other women. Sure, he still found them attractive to look at, and there were still fleeting fantasies. But that was all more subconscious than conscious. This was different.

One night, as Michael was preparing to send his daily message to Jennifer, he found himself thinking more about Kristina than about his wife. Doubt and lust clouded his thoughts, and he wondered if he really loved Jennifer anymore. She certainly couldn’t really love him. She had aborted their child without talking to him, all so she could go to another world without him.

He contemplated leaving his apartment and going down the hall to Kristina’s room. It would be just to talk, he told himself. She had invited him over for drinks. There was nothing wrong with having drinks with a friend. As he sat there, he tried to summon some courage. He was never sure, later, if the courage he hoped for was to help him go or to make himself stay.

The call that came in while he debated was the scariest of his life, but he later decided it was the best thing to have ever happened to him. The call was from his friend Jose at NASA.

“You’re working late, Jose,” Michael joked, knowing full well it was still only the early afternoon back inHouston.

There was a noticeable pause on the phone that made Michael think he had lost the connection. After a moment, Jose said, “Michael, I don’t want to alarm you, but I wanted you to find out from me before you heard about it on the news.”

Despite Jose’s best intentions, Michael was immediately alarmed. “Heard about what?”

“There’s been an accident on Mars. We’ve lost contact with the landing module.”

A cold chill gripped Michael’s heart. All along he had assumed that if something was going to go wrong with the Mars mission, it would be during entering Mars orbit or landing on the planet. Everything had been fine yesterday, and the crew would have been doing nothing different today.

“What happened?” Michael managed to ask.

Jose sighed over the phone. “Unfortunately, we don’t know. We are still receiving telemetry from Challenger in orbit. But nothing from the surface.”

Then, with more reassurance in his voice, he said, “We don’t think it’s anything major. Probably just a glitch. Sit tight, and I’ll call you when we know more.”

“Okay, thanks, Jose,” Michael said and hung up the phone.

Michael wasn’t sure how long he sat there, but it wasn’t until he had booked tickets that he realized he had decided to fly back to Houston. There was nothing he could do in Houston, and he wouldn’t be able to learn anything more than he would be told while in Germany. But he had to do something.

During the flight, the news reports spread out. All contained more speculation than fact. Stories abounded; some said it was a simple communication system failure, while one story said that the entire crew had been killed when Challenger’s plasma engine had misfired and driven the ship into Mars, stranding the crew.

Once in Houston, Michael learned that Mary Kelly, the wife of Challenger’s captain, had opened her doors to all the crew’s families. He went straight there, joining the large gathering. Even though not all of the crew’s families lived inHouston, quite a few did. Michael had been the only local to leave, all the others having kids in school.

Conversations with the other families were quiet and superficial. No one talked about Mars. Michael spent most of his time playing games with the younger kids, keeping them away when their parents started to lose their outward calm.

Playing with the children reminded him that while his wife was on another world, these kids had a mom or dad missing. Missing three years in the life of a small child was significant. That realization made his anger at Jennifer over the abortion seem stupid. Would he have wanted his child to spend his first three years without a mother?

 After more than a day of worry, word finally came out of NASA. Contact with Challenger was reestablished, and the crew reported that the accident had been minor. The communication system was now repaired, thanks in no small part to Jennifer’s skill, Michael assumed. The sense of relief he now felt, and shared with the other families, wiped away all of the negative emotions that had been tormenting him.

After a few days, he returned toHeidelberg. Shortly after arriving at his apartment, a knock came from his door. Opening it, he saw Kristina, dressed in a sweater that was too tight across her chest and a skirt that was too short for the current weather. Surprisingly, Michael found that, aside from a basic appreciation for her beauty, the sight of Kristina did not stir any other emotions in him.

“I was happy to hear that your wife was okay,” Kristina said, genuine sympathy in her voice. “I — we were all worried about you.”

“Thank you, Kristina,” Michael replied flatly, not sure what else to say. It was not her fault he had been acting like an idiot before. He didn’t want to give her the cold shoulder, but he wasn’t sure how else to give her the message that whatever had been developing between them was done.

Fortunately, the moment of awkward silence appeared to do the trick. Kristina left with an assignment to let Julian know that he was back and that he would meet both of them at the university library the next morning.

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2 Responses to From Mars with Love part 2

  1. JediRabbit says:

    As usual, great stuff, but now I can’t wait for the ending!! Keep it coming.