The last transmission from home was more than thirty hours ago. It was barely audible through the static, and finished abruptly in mid sentence. Marianne is already in stasis for our long journey. As soon as we clear the outer planets I will join her. Until then, there is nothing to do but wait. It is possible that we will never reach our new home, but we cannot turn back. There is nothing left to turn back for. It feels much colder since we sped past the sun and turned towards the black void of our immediate future. Deep shadows engulf the cabin, except for the glowing control panel before me. In the far distance, a pinprick of light calls us onward. But I get ahead of myself. To understand where we are going, you need to understand where we have been.
The first indication that there were problems could be seen in the late twentieth century, if you knew where to look. Unfortunately almost no one did, and the few who thought they saw something strange in the seismic readings were derided as cranks and lunatics; tree-hugging Luddites determined to prevent progress. It took almost twenty years before scientists accepted that over half a century of underground nuclear testing had caused the tectonic plates to fracture, and another ten years before they admitted that the damage was ongoing and irreversible.
Marianne and I had been dating for some time, but I had never really impressed her family. Perhaps more accurately I should say her father, since Marianne’s mother passed away before I could meet her. Jack was a self-made billionaire, a typical type-A personality, and could not understand that I was happy in my chosen profession even though it would never make me rich. Our meetings were always strained, and this evening’s dinner at his house was no exception.
“Honestly, I don’t know what my daughter sees in you,” he exclaimed while Marianne fetched desert from the kitchen. “She could do so much better than you. She deserves it, you know.”
“Dad!” Marianne exclaimed exasperatedly, backing through the door carrying three bowls of rice pudding. “How many times do I have to tell you that I love Stephen?”
“Ha!” scoffed her father. “Sure you think you do, but unless you come to your senses young lady you’re going to die here with the rest of the losers.”
“What about your ship Dad?” Marianne inquired.
“There’s only space for two people. You and me. I’d never allow someone like Stephen on board.”
At that, Marianne bristled. “Dad. Sometimes you are an arrogant, pompous ass! Can’t you get it through that thick head of yours that I love him?”
Suddenly the atmosphere changed. Marianne and her dad glared at each other for a moment. Then it happened.
“Fine! If you love him so much, you can find your own transport.” Jack bellowed, “Now get out, and don’t come back until you are ready to admit that you’re wrong.”
For a moment, Marianne stood there transfixed, then she stormed out grabbing her jacket and pocketbook from where they hung in the hallway. As I followed her down the drive, her father yelled after us.
“You know I’m right, young lady! You know what else? Time is running out. If you aren’t back here by noon on Wednesday, I’ll be leaving without you.”
When I caught up with Marianne, she was in tears.
“How dare he say that!” She huffed. “Just because he doesn’t agree with your choice of career doesn’t mean you are worth less than others. We can get on one of the public transport ships.”
As far as Marianne was concerned, that was the end of the conversation. She had made her decision, and that was what we would do. For the next two days we liquidated our assets, trying to scrape together enough cash to buy a place on the next public ship. We even found someone willing to sell us his tickets. But when the day came, our contact backed out on the deal, asking for more than double his original asking price. We could have afforded one ticket, but I wasn’t willing to go without Marianne, and she felt the same way about leaving without me.
By this time, it was obvious that neither of us would be getting on the ship, and even if Marianne had been willing to go with her father, by the time we got back down into the valley it would be past his deadline. Instead, we chose to stay and watch the lucky passengers leaving. The last few were boarding as we walked to the observation area where a huge crowd had gathered to watch the lucky few leave.
The transport ship stood there, waiting for the appointed hour before it departed. It was a huge behemoth of a spacecraft, capable of carrying over seven thousand passengers in addition to the two hundred or so crew members that would take care of the ship during its journey. The only problem with the ship was that it would be too expensive to keep everyone in stasis throughout the journey. That was a luxury only the richest could afford, but it also meant that the ship had to carry with it everything that would be necessary for the journey, including facilities for dealing with the births and deaths that would take place before reaching a new home.
Finally, the doors were sealed. It stood there, like a cross between a huge insect and a piece of early industrial machinery. The crowd stood, hushed in anticipation, waiting for whatever would happen next. Near the front of the crowd journalists talked animatedly to the news cameras, describing in detail the preflight checks that would be happening inside.
A few minutes later, the engines started with a deafening roar and a rumble that seemed to shake the entire valley. As the legs of the ship left the ground, the crowd surged forwards. We were caught up among them, swept along like flotsam on the surface of a fast flowing river.
Suddenly, people in front of us started screaming. The ground lurched and we staggered drunkenly. Then the reason for the screams became apparent. A jet of magma spewed into the air and rained down on anyone who was too close. Without warning, the stream leaped higher. Molten rock rained down on the side of the ship and solidified there. Almost immediately the craft started leaning towards the fissure. It was as if time suddenly dilated and we perceived everything in slow motion. Horrified, we watched as the ship fell back to earth. Many were not quick enough to get out of the way, and were crushed under the stricken spaceship. Finally, the fuel tank must have ruptured. With a thunderous explosion the ship disintegrated. Shards of metal rained down like shrapnel. Beside us a man collapsed, his scull shattered by the flying debris. Fearing for our lives, we ran.
When we finally got back into town several hours later, we could hardly recognize the place. With all the security surrounding the evacuation fleet, there were no police available to maintain order in the city. Looters had broken into most of the stores and carried off anything of value. Broken glass lay everywhere. Several of the buildings had been burned. Smoke wafted from the open doorways and empty window frames.
We got to my apartment building to find that the looters had been there too. The front door of my home was smashed in, and lay in pieces on the floor. Every drawer and cupboard in the place had been emptied on the floor, and anything of value that could be carried away was missing. The only thing they had missed was a bronze statuette of a galloping stallion, but that would have been too heavy, and too difficult to get rid of for the anyone wanting to make quick money.
Marianne and I stood in the middle of the living room and looked at each other. Slowly, I took her hand in mine.
“There’s nothing here for me now, and I don’t think it’s going to be safe to stay here after dark.” I told my dearest one. She nodded, a tear slowly rolling down her cheek.
“We could go to my father’s house,” she suggested. “It’ll be empty now, but at least it’ll be safe.”
Quickly, I gathered up a few clothes and bundled them into a carryall. The noise in the street outside seemed to be increasing again, and if the raised voices were anything to go by it seemed likely that a riot would soon break out. The alley to the back of the building seemed to be quieter, and would lead us in the right direction. We hurried down the fire escape, the impact of our footsteps against the metal steps sounding like an alarm ringing. The apartment was only on the third floor, but it seemed much further as the sound of the mob grew behind us. Finally, we reached the alleyway, and walked quickly away.
It took several hours to reach the mansion. On three occasions, the sound of an approaching mob caused us to scurry down side streets and back alleys to avoid them. We arrived just before sunset to find the house in darkness. To our surprise, the alarm was not set, however it was beeping occasionally because the main power was out.
“I’ll see if I can find us something to eat.” Marianne suggested, heading towards the pantry. “Can you start a fire to keep us warm? The library is probably the best place. I’ll see if I can find some candles too.”
“Sure.” I answered to her back as she disappeared, opening the heavy oak doors that led into the library. The last rays of the setting sun had turned the clouds orange and gold, and the reflected light through the large bay windows was just enough for me to see the fireplace. I made my way towards it, stumbling slightly over the corner of a hand-made woolen Turkish rug.
Quickly, I prepared the fire in the gathering gloom. I set a match to the paper at the base of the fire, and watched as the fire flickered into life. Suddenly, I became aware of another presence in the room. There behind me, silhouetted in the window was a man. He appeared to be crying, his shoulders shaking in silent wrenching sobs. As the fire grew, I realized it was Jack. In his lap lay a photo album. His fingers moved slowly across the page, as if he were caressing the young woman pictured on it. In the light of the fire, I could see a tear running slowly down his cheek.
“Jack? Are you OK?” I asked him. He didn’t answer immediately, touching the hair of the woman in the picture, as if he were running his fingers through her long brown locks in his mind.
“She meant the world to me, you know.” Jack said softly, gazing at the picture. “I built this library for her.”
There seemed to be nothing for me to say, so I just sat and waited. After a moment Jack continued.
“Her father didn’t want us to get married. He told her that he would disown her if she married me. She told him that she would marry me anyway, and she did. He never spoke to her again until he was on his deathbed. I saw the pain in her eyes each time she spoke about him, and she swore that she would always let her children live their own lives. After Marianne stormed off, I remembered Maria’s words, and found this old album.” For the first time, Jack looked directly at me. “I can’t leave Maria, or erase what she means to me, and I shouldn’t have asked Marianne to leave you.”
Jack looked down again at the picture of his beloved wife, then out through the window towards the grotto in the garden that they had built together, and where her ashes were scattered. Another tear trickled slowly down his cheek.
“Maria and I had our chance. Now it’s your time. I’m old. Older than I wanted to admit to myself. I told myself that I could leave it all behind, but I can’t. My life is here, what’s left of it. I don’t want to leave. This is where Marianne grew up. I can still picture her playing hide-and-seek around the house with her friends, the mess after the pool party she had when Maria and I went away for the weekend, the way she looked in her prom dress as she walked down the grand staircase.”
Jack paused, then sighed deeply. “There’s something else too. Something Marianne doesn’t know. I’m ill. Seriously ill. Even if I do leave here, I probably wouldn’t make it to any new home.”
“Don’t say that!” I exclaimed, “Nobody can tell what will happen tomorrow. They might find a cure! You can’t just give up!”
“I’m not giving up,” Jack responded, “I’m just being realistic. It’s too late for me. Perhaps six months ago something could have been done.” He paused again. “I restocked the spaceship with things that are more appropriate for a young couple.” Suddenly he looked past me. “Take care of each other. Love each other.”
“No father, no!” Marianne exclaimed from behind me. “We can’t just leave you here!”
“You have to.” Responded Jack. “If you took me along as well we would never reach the new planet. Not alive, anyway. There’s barely enough air for the two of you. You’ll have to make part of the journey in stasis.”
It was a tearful farewell, but eventually Jack convinced Marianne that the only sensible thing to do was for us to take the spaceship. Slowly we walked towards the launching area that used to be the tennis court. After one final embrace we climbed into our new home for the next few months. As I prepared the craft for takeoff, Jack removed himself to a safe distance. Marianne was glued to the window, watching Jack leave, until it was time to fasten ourselves in. Finally everything was prepared. I started the engines carefully, watching out for problems like we saw at the public launch site. Fortunately, the rock was more stable, and we left the ground without problems. The last thing I saw before setting our course was Jack waving us farewell. I don’t know if Marianne saw him too, through her tears. If she did, she didn’t say anything about it afterwards. She was too upset to say anything much.
Hopefully, time will heal the pain. If we reach our new home successfully we will plant a grotto to remember both Marianne’s parents, and remember how they, and many others, gave us life. Until then, at least we are together.
I set the computer to autopilot, and enter the stasis capsule across from Marianne. If all goes well, the computer will reanimate me shortly before we reach our new home. Marianne looks so peaceful, reminiscent of the way I remember when I watched her sleeping beside me. God willing, her beautiful face will be the first thing I see when I wake in a few months. I press the blinking button to start the sequence.