Wednesday, January 23, 2008


The forethought that went into the simple action of pressing one button... the mind quails to consider it.

The voice of the new moon called out to Michael, simple and quiet. As it passed overhead, pace sedately reflecting Michael's approach, he considered how his thirty two years planetbound on Earth trained him to think of the moon as new and old, when it was really just tricks of perspective, the position of the moon relative to the sun. Soon, he would be planetbound again after five years on the ship. The new moon beckoned him to enjoy her pale warmth, the gaunt reflection of things to come. After living with artificial lighting, video terminal displays, and for two seconds, a bright fire, for over one hundred and fifty million seconds, the natural sun would feel good upon his skin.

A blade of polished obsidian came up beside Michael's shuttle, a cutter to guide the ship into its docking station. It fastened itself to the ship, then began gently firing attitude control bursts. Michael felt the shuttle shudder slightly as he got up from the chair to go back to the galley to make himself some supper. The docking would take another fourteen hours, a small time in the scheme of things, yet he knew it would feel unbearably long. Then, another two week gravity reacclimation process, and he would be allowed to return to the ground of his birth.

As he ate a gloriously tender steak, Michael's thoughts wandered far and wide. He had spent his time before the main, serving as a zero-g plumbing expert on the Oort Runner Landmark Mountain. The massive solar sails that had powered the Landmark on the way out had required constant maintenance, along with the life support plumbing. And Michael Coady had done it all, for five years. He had put up with his nominal supervisor, a wet behind the ears Fluid Dynamics PhD, who had spent six months belittling the six years that Michael had spent at a Lagrange habitat as "easier than the challenge our moving environment provides," until Michael had figured out how to reroute hydraulic fluid for the sail around a micrometeor impact, while the PhD was calculating acceptable levels of lubricant loss. He had put up with the cramped quarters that he lived in, the snoring bunkmate, the partially rehydrated food. The separation. Now, it was soon to be done.

Michael went to bed that night with the new moon waxing brighter overhead. He had spent more than he should have on a private cabin on the shuttle back, but the moonport had made the expense worth it. He just didn't feel quite ready yet to interact with the world at large. To sit next to some overweight business man from trans-martian space and listen to him pontificate about the Emergency didn't seem to Michael to be the best way to reintroduce himself to society.

He awoke to the increasing sound of the alarm clock. In the weak gravity, he pushed himself up and began the process of waking up. After his breakfast, he began to collect his few belongings from where they had scattered during the night. The ship was to dock in three hours, and he wanted to have all his paperwork cleared so he could just walk off the ship, to the grav clinic, and then to home. The hours and days leading up to the return would be long, but they held the delicious taste of anticipation.

Inside the grav clinic, Michael's muscles and joints were slowly rehabilitated into something that would be able to function on Earth. He would never be able to run a marathon or play rugby, but he would be able to walk and move about fairly well. It was a small price to pay for his salary for giving five years of his life away. It was a small price to pay for the time that he had spent on the ship. Before he had left, he had been told that this experience would change him, would turn him into someone else. In the grav clinic, as he laid reading hard copy books for the first time in nearly twelve years, he began to formulate an opinion on what he had learned while he was before the main.

He had left thinking it was about earning his redemption. That it was about starting to make payments for the one thing that he couldn't accept happening. That thought had followed him for the two years that they were on the way out. When they got to mining station and had began to fill the emptied hold of the ship, his thoughts started to change. As he saw the deposits of rare and precious minerals began to accumulate, he had known what the difference was between why he had come and why he had been led.

His two weeks were over. He went down the old way, like a rock, ceramic heat shield protecting the cargo and passengers from the inferno of reentry. He had the money to take a plane down, the safe way. But he wanted to feel the tension, the suspense of being out of control. Michael Coady was coming home from space, and he wanted to do it in style.

They made it just fine. He took a day in the groundside hospital, making sure there were no ill effects of his reintroduction to gravity. He did feel weighed down, and he tripped on stairs more than he would have liked. Still, he just couldn't stay in the hospital anymore. And so, Michael checked out of the hospital. He walked to a nearby park as dusk fell, and stood in the outfield of an unoccupied softball diamond. There he stood for a few hours, soaking in the moonlight as it coolly graced him. He thought about what was to come.

The cool of night came on, prompting him to move. Michael made his way to the nearest boulevard and hired a simple cab to take him to his destination. On the way, he spoke to the driver about the area, about how it might have changed since the last time Michael had visited. The driver had spent a term on a wet navy ship, and they compared notes about how their two environments were the same and different. It made the time pass by just a little faster. Finally, the cab arrived, and as Michael slowly got out, the driver pulled his simple bag out of the back and set it down next to him. The driver extended his hand to Michael, and said, "Proud to have met you, sir." Michael took his hand in as firm a grip as he could manage. As the car drove away, Michael looked down at his bag. For the first time, he was amazed that he had managed to live from that little for so long.

Now that the moment was finally here, Michael couldn't bring himself to move. But he couldn't put it off any longer. Slowly, he made his way to the door. There was a simple button beside it. Michael lifted his finger to it, and paused. It came rushing back to him. The day he had left, he had sought redemption. He had sought to repay his debts. Somewhere in the vast infinity of open space, the need to repay had fallen away. It had been for redemption, but he had seen that it could not be gained just by seeking it.

Slowly, his arm extended, and he heard the faint tone from inside. He held his breath... and smiled at the words that came from inside.

They say write what you know. I don't know if that's good advice here. This is one of the most deeply personal stories I have written in a long time, and I don't know if I have the proper perspective or separation to handle it right. The story, in various forms, has been kicking around for a month or so. I was missing the element of the moon until recently, and I also didn't know what was said to Michael at the end of the piece. I added the moon in today. I decided not to tell you what was said, to seal it up with me. Maybe you get the parallel?

I also know most of the orbital science and physical description of the travel is probably wrong. I'm not an astrophysicist, and it doesn't really matter to the story.

A servant's heart and a tongue to obey.

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