Lift Off

T-Minus 3 months…

 

Dhanishta was not embarrassed when she said goodbye to her cow and cried.

How could she be?

Crying was appropriate when leaving your world behind.

There could be no shame in such a display of emotion.

Sad as she was, though, she was happy to be crying here. In the lush grass of her family farm in California, she was surrounded by everything she had ever loved about the Earth. The land and green things growing, life everywhere as far as the eye could see. Butterflies and beetles, pigs and chickens, wild rabbits and a bull roaming on a distant hill. Hay bales stacked high and wild flowers every which way. You could hear it, smell it, feel it.

All the life that it hurt to say goodbye to.

How could one stand in the midst of such beauty and not cry?

It helped that her best friend since childhood, Lulabelle, did not have a judgemental bone in her massive bovine body. And that the cow was standing next to her breathing in her face. When you are upset, there are few things in the universe as comforting as a cow breathing on your face with hay-scented breath. Dhanishta stroked the cow’s neck, tenderly.

It helped to know that one of the first six, the hardest and strongest man the Earth had ever borne, had posted a heart-wrenching video of saying goodbye to his dog and cried with nothing but pride and love for what he was leaving behind. He had not hated the Earth at all, but loved it and wished to bring its wonders among the stars and knew that to do so he must leave the Earth behind. For that he had cried tears of sorrow and beauty.

Dhanishta did the same.

It continued for several minutes before she could say what she had come to say, but when she cleared her throat her voice was firm. She was, after all, an astronaut, and therefore an old hand at duty and discipline.

“I will bring them meat. Each day they will eat of you, but you will never die. There, the Law of the Jungle will be rewritten. By the time we bring animals to Mars, my way will be the only way and they will be left in peace. No Martian shall ever eat flesh brought forth from suffering. And every Martian shall know your name and your sacrifice.”

Dhanishta placed her head against the side of Lulabelle’s ribs and felt the cow’s powerful breathing. She had done so many times in her youth, and once all night when was old enough to confront the practical horror of what it was her family actually did for a living. The simple, terrible necessity that came of living in a world where living required death. Dhanishta had eaten nothing from a living animal since that night and had tasted no meat until a year ago.

The year she had succeeded.

The year she had broken the Law of the Jungle.

She picked up a metal canister, dull and gray, and held it before Lulabelle. It weighed a little over twenty pounds but it contained both the future and enough food to feed a world. Above all, it contained a people free from sin.

“Because of the work we have done together, soon no human will want to hurt you ever again.”

Dhanishta wrapped her arms around Lulabelle’s thick neck and kissed the cow a single time on her perfect pink nose.

Then she walked back to the house, shook her father’s rough hand, abided his histrionics and hysterical prayers in Portuguese, ordered a Fleet vehicle and slept all the way to the airport.

 

*****

 

“Huh. I honestly wasn’t sure it would be you,” said Al with genuine astonishment.

On the other side of the plexiglass separating Al from the rest of the world was a face he hadn’t seen or thought of in ten years. A face that in many ways had murdered the child in him and sent him on the road to adulthood. It looked old and worn, and far less intimidating than he remembered.

“How many fucking people do you know named Snake?” asked Snake, who was wearing what for him was no doubt formal wear.

Al looked down at himself for contrast, half-convinced he was dreaming. He wore what was basically a set of white cotton pajamas, designed to be thrown away. The sort of garment he’d worn for the last few months in the pre-Launch quarantine. The only permanent garment he wore was a wrist computer that monitored his vital signs. Al looked exactly like what he was, a spaceman on a short holdover on Earth.

Snake, on the other hand, wore a sports jersey that shone like silk and crisp blue jeans. Even his wallet chain seemed to gleam like it had seen a heavy polish. His sneakers too, looked new. There was no bandana at all, not even pale skin to mark where it had been worn for so many years. Not to be totally disarmed by his clothing, Snake did somehow manage to slouch on the stool that the Launch Facility had provided for him.

Still, they might as well have been time-travelers for all they shared in common.

“Honestly? Knowing a drug-dealer named Snake is kind of like knowing a construction worker named Mike. Or Spider. Lots of Spiders walking around the old neighborhood. Not a lot of imagination, if I recall,” said Al.

Snake opened his mouth and closed it again, as if unsure of what to say. His expression dark and unreadable. Brooding and a bit pissed.

“Are you still mad about your car? I left it on the side of the interstate. I figured the cops would return it to you,” said Al.

Al suddenly remembered the beatings he’d taken all of those years ago. Could Snake have been harboring revenge fantasies for all of these years? Snake couldn’t hurt him but what if he managed to breach the quarantine? Would Launch Authority ground Al for another two years? Orbital windows to Mars didn’t just open up every day and quarantine was vital. You couldn’t have the flu debilitating entire spaceships full of people.

Snake’s expression was easier to make out now. The other man seemed to be suffering a moment of genuine confusion.

“What? What car? That car? The one with the hydraulics? You stole that piece of shit?”

“You didn’t know?”

Al had spent the first three months of his escape sleeping with one eye open, waiting for Snake and his friends to show up and beat him to death. Imagining a thousand dramatic showdowns. The idea that Snake hadn’t even known, hadn’t even suspected, was somehow disappointing.

“I always figured that the guy I stole it from just stole it back,” said Snake.

“Then… why are you here?”

No one from those days had shown up, before. Not the people who helped him, not anyone. Even Al’s parents had never tried to make contact after his name had been splashed all over the news. In fact, the only person from those days who’d ever bothered to see him was sitting in front of him right now.

“Well, how many fucking people do you know who are going to other planets?” said Snake.

Al smiled, and rolled his eyes. He supposed he could at least enjoy this moment. Rub it in his ex-abuser’s face. He smirked.

“That’s literally everyone I know, now.”

“Jesus, why do you have to give me such a hard time? I came to say congratulations, or whatever! And… man I knew this was a fucked idea.” Snake fumbled to get a piece of paper out of his pocket, which he held up to the glass after a moment of hesitation.

Al expected a death threat, a picture of one of his parents bound and tortured, some kind of awful catastrophic information that would mean he wouldn’t be able to go to Mars… Instead, it was a crayon drawing of an astronaut on the planet Mars. In the background was a spaceship and two moons.

In the corner was written: “For Dad’s Friend!!!!”

The a’s and the e’s were backwards.

“I think… I’m missing something,” said Al after a moment.

Snake sighed and it seemed like the other man was fifty years old, though they were both still in their mid-twenties. Snake stood up suddenly, and his motions were erratic and frustrated, like he didn’t know what to do with himself so that even his body was confused. From the other side of the glass, in the far corner, a member of Launch School security gave Al a questioning look.

It was a “Do you want me to take care of it?” look

Al shook his head.

“I… I got a kid now. I don’t deal drugs or any of that shit anymore. I got out of that after high school. Listen, I’m sorry for the way I was to you. I work on a road crew now, busting my ass for shit pay… who cares. I got my own life now. I don’t have a gang no more. Anyway, I saw you on the news. It was goddamn surprising. Motherfucker I picked on in high school is going to Mars? Shit. I was so surprised I accidentally told my kid I knew you. He asked how and what the fuck was I supposed to say? I said we were friends. And he wanted to meet you…”

Al, who had grown greatly accustomed to the mental gymnastics necessary to go from his former life to his current life, still found himself astonished.

“You? You have a kid? You?” his mouth was hanging open but he was too surprised to close it even though he could partly see his reflection in the glass.

“Man, keep it down! He’s waiting right over there. Forget about it. I knew this was a fucked idea. I wouldn’t have come if I had any choice. Listen, I’ll tell him there’s germs or something and we had to go. I just… Jesus, forget about it.”

Al stood up and bent closer to the glass so his angle of view would be less obscured. There was a boy in the far corner, six maybe seven, with a toy Mars Colonial Transporter and astronaut action figures. A healthy, well-fed, well taken care of boy. And for some reason Al did not think of vengeance or comeuppance or getting even with Snake. Instead, he thought of a teacher with a telescope, and a librarian who said an old mutt was a service dog and a gruff old welder who told Al that he’d write a letter to get him anywhere he wanted to go.

“Bring him over,” said Al.

“Dude, I swear to God if you break that kid’s heart I will come through that fucking glass-”

“Bring him over,” repeated Al.

With obvious conflict, Snake waved with his hand. The little kid lit up like a light bulb and bolted to his father. Running so fast the security guard jolted with surprise. Then, shyly, the boy tucked his face into his Snake’s chest. Wonder of wonders, like watching a lion lay down with lambs, Snake whispered encouraging words into the child’s ear and the boy turned to face the glass. Al’s breath caught. He could see the resemblance, all of the little lines and angles that the mind processed to recognize other people, just none of the hate. None of the cruelty.

“Hello,” said Al.

“Are you an astronaut?” asked the boy.

“I will be tomorrow. Nine months from now, I’ll be a Martian. Your father tells me you like space. Is that true?”

The boy nodded, holding up his toy MCT and astronaut action figures for explanation.

“What is your favorite part about space?”

The boy looked at Al… and Al realized this was probably the reason he had become an astronaut. So that one day a kid could look at him like that and it would be real and appropriate.

“The aliems! And the moon and the stars and being able to fly ‘cause gravity and outer space and Mars and the rockets going vrooosh so high and the barge landings! And the astronauts and the spacesuits and spaceships going circle-circle-circle, and unflatble houses and…”

It continued for an hour and a half.

At one point, Al had to rack his brain with every bit of Astronaut discipline he’d acquired to remember that Snake’s real name was Robert when the child wanted to play a guessing game and would only hint that his name was the same as his father’s. It was the one time after the boy had come over that Snake looked genuinely panicked.

There were all the usual questions about going to the bathroom in space, sleeping in space, taking a shower in space… important questions, but not the most important.

“Do you want to be an astronaut one day?” asked Al.

The boy nodded, vigorously.

He thought again of a teacher with a telescope, and a librarian who turned a blind eye to an old dog, and a gruff old welder who’d promised to write a letter and delivered on that promise.

“Well, when you’re ready and if you still want to go, I’m only fifteen minutes away by email.”

Now, the look in the boy’s eyes said that there were two worlds and that both of them were achingly, hauntingly beautiful.

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