Maria mentally braced herself at the door of her parent’s house. She knocked and waited. The deadbolt clanked and the door opened. Her father smiled and greeted her, “Hello Mija.”
“Hey,” she said stepping forward to hug him, “Can I come in?”
“Of course, of course,” he said stepping back and walking into the house. She followed him into the living room and sat down on the sofa.
“Is Mom here?” she asked glancing around. There were things she had to talk to both of them about, things he and Mom needed to know before she disappeared for over a year.
“No, she’s at her book club. Why is there something you need to talk to her about?” he asked.
“No, yes but I wanted to talk to you first so this is perfect,” she said.
“So, what’s up,” he asked a touch of worry in his eyes.
“I’m going back into space.”
“Another mission, that’s good.” His expression softened. They had been worried the first time she had gone up but now that she had gone twice more it was almost routine.
She leaned forward, hands gripping the edge of the sofa cushions. “It’s a different kind of mission than the ones I’ve been on. I’m going to be off earth for about a year.”
“Are they sending you to a station?”
“No, I’m… I’m going to be leaving the solar system.” She watched him intently.
His brow wrinkled and his eyes glanced up, “I haven’t heard of a mission going out that far. Is there even a ship that can go that far out?”
She gathered her breath and thoughts, “They’re finishing construction on it now.”
“When do you launch?”
“I’m headed for the moon in couple of weeks and the ship launches from there a few months later.”
“That soon? Why are they in such a rush to launch?” he asked concerned again.
“I can’t tell you everything but the mission is very important. I’m going to be gone for most of a year and it’s dangerous. I… I might not come back.”
Halfway home, she thought as the last piece of the comet broke apart. Maria watched the pieces tumble away from each other for just a little longer than was necessary. She should call it a day. Take a day to rest and then move on to the next comet.
Halfway home but still millions of miles to. Hundreds of hours of firing the laser at comets left. She began warming up the main engines to move to the next comet. Months before she would be home. She pressed the ignition switch. The engines fired kicking her back into the seat. The least she could do was get done a day early.
THEN and NOW
Maria was late to the restaurant but she was the Pilot. The Chosen One. She hated being called that but it was still true. Her time was increasingly becoming less her own. She had an obligation to put the mission before anything else. Before anyone else.
Maria settled and strapped into the command chair. Comet five hung in space before her. Almost spherical with just a slight bulge on one side. The ship had arrived yesterday and she had set the twins mining to fill the ship’s tanks.
“Training is almost over,” Hailey said from across the table.
Maria extended her hand on the table and Hailey laced her fingers between Maria’s. “Yeah, just two more weeks.”
“Two weeks? The launch date isn’t for four months.”
She reviewed the data collected and analyzed by the ship’s A.I. overnight. Five laser sites had been pre-selected for the day. Once the twins were recalled, she moved the ship to the first site. She activated the laser. The familiar plume of gas and water vapor appeared. She noticed something happening around the laser site.
“They’re sending me to the moon to help troubleshoot and familiarize myself with the DSEV,” Maria said.
“They’re in final checks aren’t they?” Hailey asked.
“Starting soon and they want me there for most of that time. Hands on training before the mission start.”
“So, I only have you for two more weeks?”
The comet’s surface began to crack and deform outward. Pieces broke free and tumbled through space at the ship. She stopped the laser as the collision warning began to sound.
“Um.” Maria looked at their alternating light and dark fingers. They fit together in a way that scared her. “I was thinking about moving back into the dorms.”
Hailey loosened her grip, “You don’t want to stay with me?”
While nosing the ship “down”, she flicked the switches to prime the main engines. She looked up as the first comet fragment passed by. Her sigh of relief was cut short by a jolt and more warning lights flashing.
“I… I wasn’t looking for this and I’m worried this is going to make things complicated.”
“This?” Hailey pulled her hand free from Maria’s.
“Us. I didn’t want to have to leave someone behind but then I met you and we just sort of clicked.” She paused not meeting Hailey’s eyes, “I think we should put some distance between the two of us.”
“Distance?” Hailey said.
A fuel line lost pressure but the emergency system sealed it. Out the front window she saw the comet pass by. The ship was flipping end over end backwards. She reached for the control sticks.
“I… might not come back and if I don’t… I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You don’t want me to be hurt if you die in the depths of space but dumping me is just fine?” she said her voice rising in volume.
“No, I’m not dumping you. I just… We need time to cool down. We met a few months ago and now we’re basically living together now.” Maria glanced at Hailey but looked away from her piercing gaze.
The ship shuddered again. The stars began spiraling pass the window. More warning lights. Generator three was overloading.
“Seven months. It’s been seven months,” Hailey said flatly.
“I don’t want this to be harder than it has to be.”
She twisted the controls to counteract the tumbling roll of the ship. She nearly had the ship stable when the cockpit went dark.
“I’ll make it easy for you. You can move out tonight,” Hailey said. The waitress arrived with their drinks.
Maria sat in the command chair and waited for the backup power to kick in. The cockpit was dark, lit only by the infinitesimal amount of starlight entering the windows. The emergency power should have kicked in to power the lights at least. In the dark, she listened to the ship and only heard her own breathing and pounding heart. The ship was dead.
She unbuckled from the command chair and floated free. The gravity system, not unsurprisingly, was also offline. She pulled herself down the ladder to the lower deck. There was a flashlight in a compartment nearby if she could remember where it was.
After a few minutes of searching in the dark she found a head lamp. She turned to the alcove where a pressure suit stood. Not as bulky as a full extravehicular movement unit but it would keep her from running out of breathable air and protect her from the vacuum of space. She struggled into the suit piece by piece. Legs and boots, torso and arms, gloves, snoopy hat, and backpack. As she powered up the suit, the integrated exoskeleton flexed briefly around her body. She attached a light rig with a camera to her helmet before donning and sealing it. The nearly silent hum of the suit’s fans echoing within gave her a second of reassurance.
She turned to the door leading to the airlock. The magnetic soles of her boots let her walk almost normally. She grasped the lever and yanked it open.
In a random dorm room at the space agency, Maria dropped her duffel bag by the end of the bed. Most of her stuff was in storage and had been for several months. She had forgotten how little she had kept until it was packed into a single duffel bag. Living with Hailey had made her forget.
The room was little more than a bed and attached bathroom. Thankfully she didn’t have to worry about communal showers. She reached over to the alarm clock on the night stand and set it for the morning. She got ready for sleep and laid down on the bed. She laid down listening to the ac. The buzz of the compressor, the hum of the fans. Moonlight dimly lit the room.