When Will We Fall Down?

February 8, 2010

 This story is set on the first space colony. Confession, in another post, is set on earth, and is about a priest who has just been consecrated the first bishop of outer space and is on his way to this colony. They’ll get together in a bit.

Layne’s muscles quivered in small jerks. His beautiful silver eyes, the clear, calm eyes Marley had loved since he was born eight years ago, were rolled all the way backwards in his little head.  His hands were making clutching movements as if he were falling. “Mom! Do something! ” Marley tried to work her hands under his head to keep it from banging against the floor. “Do something!”

“There’s nothing we can do, yet. Just wait. It’s a typical one-tonic-clonic. It should be over in two minutes. That’s right, cushion his head.” Her mother was kneeling at his side. Just as she said, within seconds, Layne’s breathing returned, the blue color around his mouth faded, and the awful shaking slowed, and then stopped. Her mother turned him gently on his side and kept her hand on his shoulder, patting him, while she carried on a conversation with herself. As usual, thought Marley, and then felt guilty. Her mother was doing the best she could as she coped with the medical needs of Earth’s first space colony, on little sleep and little food.

“I don’t see how it got past the screening. I can see how they missed it in the scan, PNES doesn’t cause changes in the brain like epilepsy. But there must have been some genetic flag, something to catch their attention.” The competition for spots had been fierce. Even something potentially treatable like PNES would’ve eliminated Layne, and with him, his family.

“Come on, Mom. In English! What’s PNES?” A wet stain had spread across the front of Layne’s khakis and Marley felt another stab of pain, knowing how embarrassed he would be when he woke up.

“Psychogenic Non-epileptic Seizures, Marley. Psychogenic—having their origin in the mind. Different from epilepsy. Something scared Layne—this badly. He’ll grow out of it, that’s typical. But if they’d caught it, we wouldn’t be here. We’d be on earth. Scratched.”

Sobering thought. Earth was burning.  Environmental catastrophes and now the possibility of imminent nuclear war.  There had been plenty of things there on earth that could have scared Layne before they, and the fortunate ten thousand others, were lifted out of it to the hardly completed space colony.

Just for one thing, his school lunchroom had been blown apart by a miniature suicide bomber. He’d just stepped one foot outside to play lunchtime pick up soccer in the courtyard, and turned back toward the noise, and watched his friends behind him die as their bodies flew apart but shielded him.  

Then the rioting on the way to the launch. That had been ugly. Their guards had killed people right in front of them, people had tried to kill them, people threw horrible things, said horrible things.  

Her mother continued. “But he’ll grow out of it. Almost all PNES do. We have to help him get over it.”

“You say it so calmly, Mom. How do we, help him? Is there a pill or something?”

“No. None without very bad effects anyway. We just have to help him not be scared.” Like an unspoken prayer she touched the crucifix she wore.

Not be scared, Marley thought. Like that was an option. Let’s see, now, children, let’s review the first half of the 21st century. Nuclear nonproliferation had prevented only the peaceful, non-polluting, use of nuclear technology, while preventing nobody, not a single country, not a single organized militia, from having their own personal nuclear device.

But that wasn’t all. Carbon dioxide spikes were proving to be even more dangerous than the storms and draughts of global warming. Plants couldn’t take it. The earth had practically no trees now and had lost corn, and most countries stockpiling their own grains instead of sending aid to the corn eaters. Wheat was tougher. Scientists were frantically studying its genetic structure, trying to see if they could modify other grains to have the same resistance.

But to Marley, that wasn’t the worst. The scariest part was the social breakdown.

For one thing, there were hardly any scientists left and most of them were now on the colony. People were happy to believe in just about anything: maybe the wind had a mind of its own, maybe the planets are alive, we need shamans, not scientists, we need some virgins to sacrifice, like a popular song refrained. Something civilized was gone. Nobody had time to think what. Marley thought she knew.

And life had gotten so raw. Instead of treating the sick with respect, like for a couple thousand years in the civilized west, now hospitals looked at the profit/loss, and a shot was so easy to administer, and so cheap: bye bye, Gramma

And women? Be a woman? Women could not walk alone in broad daylight, not anywhere; they risked being raped until they could not walk at all. Even little girls. Even babies. Why not? There was even baby porn. Every kind of law was breaking down.

It was God they were missing, the one God, a real God, that’s what Marley thought. Of course it would be what she thought, her family had always been Catholic. Not too many left of those left, either. Not that there’d ever been that many real ones! What Dad said.

So the Allied Nations had flung ten thousand of their supposed best into orbit with the shell of a habitat, and a few supplies, and a hope and a prayer. Every talking head said it was too soon, hardly anything field tested.

Like, right, Mom, not be scared.

Here they were, skinny, oxygen-hungry, with too many of the wrong bugs, not enough of the right bugs, not enough pollinators, not enough of anything, so very far from home, hung out in the night sky like an Allied target.  The shell that protected them wasn’t tougher or even thicker than Layne’s little skull. Theoretically that was enough, considering the pressure differences.

And worst of all, they were still human. Children of God, and sinners under the best conditions. Now it was like, sin had become some kind of art form.

But don’t be scared. Right.

But that wasn’t the whole story, Marley had to admit. Maybe the optimists had a small point. Marley’d been thinking it for a little while: something felt different on the colony. They say you can’t move away from your problems, you take them with you, but maybe they were wrong. Something had changed.  It might still feel like too soon, but it did not anymore feel like too many, the way it did on Earth. 

Out here, looking around the universe through their observation window, looking around the solar system that was a tiny part of a galaxy called the Milky Way, which has a hundred billion other stars–it could seriously change your perspective.

Something had happened. Like they had opened a door to the outside. It was still enormous. Yet, without gravity to hold them down and atmosphere to burn them up, it was so much closer than it ever has been. And it was calling them.  

It was like that one last, little thing, one notch up on a scale, like when liquids change to gas and you get something completely different. It was like that: human beings suddenly were precious. It was like having some nice outfit on, how it changed every single thing. They sure were right about self-esteem, back in school, Marley realized, but they didn’t know how to get it. Just make us feel like there should be more of us. Send us to space!

It crossed Marley’s mind that maybe the same thing might have happened on earth, as soon as it became clear that the space colonists had not died in the evacuation and apparently would continue to not die, now that so many systems were coming on-line. Maybe now the whole human race felt that the universe had this sign, Open for Businezz. Marley would email a school friend back on Earth, if she knew how to ask the question. Do you feel different down there, too, now that we’re Out?

In the lunch room they were talking about a planet in another solar system that had mountains of diamonds. So what if it was hundreds of light years away? It didn’t seem insurmountable anymore. They were working on solutions, a warp drive, and solar sails that billowed with actual light and traveled faster and faster until the speed of light itself was not, theoretically, unfeasible. (What’s faster than warp drive? Answer: the Net rumor we have warp drive.)

Some engineers, her father told her, were tracking an asteroid that would pass close enough to the colony to harvest. It was packed with platinum, and hydrogen, and oxygen, and lots of other goodies all of which could either be used on the colony, or sold to Earth. And for energy, you didn’t even need to move. Just hold out your hat. Energy was there for the asking, endless daylight in endless summer.

But there was too much to do! There were other colonies to be built, quickly, and all those asteroid projects with interesting names and big payoffs to organize. And that wasn’t even counting delivering energy to Earth.  They needed more hands! The colony could be home to double, triple, the original ten thousand, but it was so expensive to evacuate more people from earth. On the colony unemployment and overpopulation seemed like jokes. Archaic references, old superstitions as quaint as the fear mankind had once had of flying in zero g.  Now that those fears were gone, it was clear how much they had affected just the simple day to day things about life. They had made human beings afraid—to exist at all. Like the next breath you took was somehow taking life from some poor third world person somewhere. Like you just shouldn’t exist. It had made life so dreary.

But now, voila, you were precious!

Of course they were still afraid. They were afraid they couldn’t get plants pollinated. They were afraid they’d lose hummingbirds, and molds seemed more aggressive on the colony. But they didn’t have to feel guilty for living, the way it seemed to have gotten on Earth. Let’s hear it for living!

The very odd thing, it was especially different for women. Make that men and women. Or better, everything connected with sex and love and romance. That was clear right away!

Like, take the idea of having babies. A year ago, this was a Bad Thing, along with your Period.  You were supposed to like sex because it felt good, sure, like eating and sleeping, but not for real love or especially not for babies. Love was for chumps.

Not just that. It used to be, everybody “knew” men and women were more alike than different, and any differences women actually encountered, like monthly bleeding and PMS and breast feeding and pregnancy. were unfair and unjust and usually avoidable by taking the right combination of pills and eating a low fat diet. Unless you were the poster girl of Stupid.

But it wasn’t the same on the colony. Maybe it was the urgency of getting the natural to work at all on the colony. On Earth you bug-sprayed ants that came to the picnic. Here they were just trying to get ants to act normal, because their navigation system sure was messed up. Here they were trying to get everything to act normal and reproduce.  Everything natural was practically sacred.  From a joke Marley had overheard among some girls on a work detail laying thick black topsoil (as precious as platinum) over the grid that underlay everything in the colony, this included periods. Periods were back. Quietly, it was passed around, no cramps in zero g, take a break, flygirl.

This had something to do with unemployment, but Marley couldn’t put her finger on what. But something sure had changed. She personally felt like a little power plant humming along, singing an old song, What you want, Baby, I got it, whatever It was. Not so bad to be a girl.

More important, Layne was needed here, everyone was needed, and therefore it would be okay to get well.  Theoretically. This made all the difference, but Marley didn’t know exactly how.

Yeah, yeah, it had to be too good to last. Marley thought it was only a matter of time before the colony was dragged into the war. She remembered the strange email message yesterday. Death struggle, so be it. Pick a side. You’re going to die anyway. Have the sense to die for your own. She wondered how they got her email address, if others had been contacted, if she were in danger. And, excuse me, but who were “her own,” now?

Maybe the Greens were right, maybe the colony formed their own political country and should secede from earth?  

But if they weren’t earthlings or even Allies, who were they? Just –colonists?

That was as dumb a question as some of Laney’s! Like the other day he asked her, “Marley, when you was as little as me, where was I?” What had she told him? She couldn’t even remember. I don’t know where he was then, dear God, but I’ve lost my world and he’s all I’ve got left. Please, please help him get well!

Layne slept now, taking deep breaths through his open mouth. “Can you take care of him, Mom? I’m late for work right now.” Everybody over twelve had a job on the colony, along with “school” which was still being worked out. Marley was seventeen, practically the senior staff member in her section. She worked at the welcome wing where visiting techs from earth shuttled up to help, except they usually went home with more than they gave, now that the colony was starting to kick butt.

Her mother sat patting Layne, lost in thought, probably already doing the math, extrapolating how many other colonists might be experiencing PNES, what the medical teams could do. Marley gathered her backpack and things and paused at the door. “Mom. Tell him it’s normal, about wetting his pants. Explain it to him in English. Make a joke.”

“The thing is, it’s not normal, Marley. And it’s not a joke.”

“Make it one, Mom. Explain the technical stuff to Dad. He can make anything funny. Or Tom! Have him make it a Latin joke! Gotta go.” Marley bent and laid her hand on Layne’s shoulder, and turned and stepped outdoors.

Outdoors.  Well, it looked just like outdoors. The colony was an O’Neil cylinder, the biggest, Island Three, twenty miles long, four miles wide. That was big enough for an atmosphere, and clouds, and rain. It looked like Illinois—big blue sky, big green fields where someday houses would stand, and a horizon that curved gently up instead of down. It had only taken a couple of hours to seem “normal.” The trees were young, like in a new subdivision. The only thing was, their blue sky had a big black window and you could see earth, and the mirror that reflected the sun inside the sphere, or turned aside so there was night, and beyond that the whole universe revolved. Actually the colony revolved, not the sky, to keep up the artificial gravity that saved their bones and muscles from zero G. Right now the colonists lived in apartment bunkers, but there would be houses someday.

It had cost the Allies thirty thousand dollars an acre to build the colony, roughly everything they had. But, oh, what they stood to gain—from the harvest, not a harvest of green plants, but the sun itself, in oceans of energy microwaved to earth. And a total change in the political balance of power.  The oil nations would lose their card.

The colonists’ job: to deliver the goods, and maybe, no one said it, to save a remnant of mankind should it manage to extinguish itself on earth. They were almost there, but there was a growing interest among many colonists to negotiate a new deal, one in which the colony ruled the earth, not the other way around.

We grew up fast, Marley thought as she started her scooter. And earth seemed to grow down. Every time the colonists mastered some new problem in self-sufficiency, earth would self-destruct in some new way. Like, colonists had learned to manage the air, scrubbing it with solar-powered catalytic burners, distilling away the mercury and other poison noble gases that wouldn’t burn. Their air was suddenly champagne compared to earth’s. Terrorists there had learned to invade small laboratories and release their chemicals into the atmosphere. That new load joined with the pollution from petroleum-powered vehicles. Now there were spontaneous fireballs and flash explosions; on earth, the air was burning.

Another thing: colonists were learning to garden in space, in ten acre necklaces of farm pods strung like pearls around the colony, balloons harvesting the oxygen and carrying the colony’s CO2 back up. The plants and animals were outside the artificial gravity in the main cylinder, at zero g, and they seemed to love it. Marley glanced up at the necklaces as she passed another scooter on the road and remembered an old saying, archaic now: When pigs fly. Her father was up there somewhere, flying around with the pigs and snow peas at zero g in one of the pods, or between them.

The rich, on earth, were adjusting their life styles to self contained atmospheres, actually creating their own tented communities just like gated communities, and borrowing the technology of the space colony instead of the other way around. The poor were dying.

But the space colonists were only days away from going on line with microwaved solar energy. They had first provided for the energy needs of the colony, originally supplied from earth.  Now they were preparing their first transmission of solar gold to the rectenae on earth—if terrorists didn’t blow them up first. The pressure on the ground, said the newscasts, was incredible. The pressure in the colony had grown, too. Those who had never supported the war against terrorism were equally reluctant to win it, as the Allies had the chance now to become the brokers of energy rather than the consumers. If only they would use it well, and really help people!

Marley had a tiny hope, maybe, if they were having so much luck on the technological end, maybe they could overcome some of the social challenges, too.

The trouble was, they were still human. The increased energy supply wouldn’t matter if people didn’t make some other changes. It made Marley mad, really mad, why were they always looking to solutions for somebody else instead of taking responsibility? Why did they say they wanted a law, or a magical leader, when they already knew the law, and broke it? They already had leaders that they ignored. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t murder, don’t take another woman’s husband or home. Don’t exploit children, don’t have sex with children. Don’t blow children up. Admit there’s a right and a wrong.

Marley’s father said that if she were older, it wouldn’t surprise her. But it did surprise her, and it scared her silly that human beings didn’t talk about it. They never looked at the most fundamental questions. They could measure to the fraction of a microgram just how much arsenic could be in a lake, but they would forget to put cooperation on the agenda so no one would dump arsenic there.

Or maybe they didn’t exactly forget. Maybe they already knew it was hopeless. It always seemed like the reasons for wars were so complicated, so intertwined and old, so persuasive, it seemed hopeless to discuss such an abstract idea like cooperation. It was so lame, why can’t we just all get along? Her grandparents had been hippies to the end, and they had never understood the world. We can’t “just get along” because some things are important enough to fight for. We can’t “just get along” because we lie and steal, we murder and rape. We give candy to children and we drug them, and then we smile and tape heavy explosives under their thin little ribs, and send them off to school to blow it up. Don’t tell anyone. If you tell anyone, we will kill your family. But if you do as we say, they will live. And we will give them some money.

The worst thing, Marley thought, was that a lot of colonists thought they were exempt. They were so carefully selected, so well educated, their governments had given them classes in democracy. They had science, as if that were enough. They were techies, not ignorant peasants! That’s what they all thought.

To Marley, they might be techies that could dance the network tango, but they were hooked on easy answers and ignored their own shortcomings. Just right now they were practically drunk from success.  There were ten thousand colonists whose median age was twenty two. They had their finger on the switch.  Most of them only believed in science which to Marley meant they hadn’t been listening very well in science class. They didn’t have a clue about the stuff that makes science possible. Knowing this did not make her feel superior. Marley herself didn’t think she had a clue, either, but at least she knew science alone couldn’t stop war. But what could? Were they doomed to die? Even the innocent, like Layne?

Marley parked her scooter and passed through the garden to get into work. Inside, her only coworker in the hospitality department was on the phone. From the conversation, Marley knew it was Jessica’s latest lover, a tall, red-headed engineer named Eddie who worked on the mirror project. They were breaking up. You could tell from Jessica’s critical tone, which Marley had heard before. Jess had already broken up with three sexual partners just in the few months she and Jess had been assigned together. Marley suspected Jessica just dumped guys before they could dump her. Marley had taken herself out of that game. Marley was waiting for somebody special, although probabilities seemed about the same for love as they did for peace in the Middle East, and she didn’t really know how she’d recognize him if she ever met him. Anyway, she wasn’t as lonely as some girls, she had Layne, her mom and dad were real parents even though they worked hard, too. Jessica was an only child and both her parents were programmers–you know what that’s like.

There was a guy who definitely had her attention, though. Tom short for Tomás. Tomás Monohan. He was a biologist. He worked with her dad a lot, but she had first met him in a bar in the rec space before he started coming to the house. The bar, close to the center of the colony between the zero G indoor soccer stadium and the low G hospital, was crowded with players and doctors and assorted friends.  

Nathan Knell, Josh Delray, and Marley were having a beer.  Josh had been in Marley’s pre-flight training group and was now interning at the hospital, Nathan was a programmer friend of a friend. Marley was too young to have a beer on earth. But at some point back in the beginning, some kid doing a man’s job and then some, had come into the newly opened establishment, asked for a beer, and plunked down his debit disk, and it just kind of happened that nobody thought to enforce that particular law. Then they quietly forgot a few others, too. It must be, Marley thought, what all frontier towns had been like. This was just the High Frontier.

Nathan was a beer ahead of them and a little hot. “They call us First Colony! Get it? Colony?” He took a swig and glared up in the general direction of the observation window, and Earth.  “We’re the ones doing the dangerous work. We’re the ones gonna supply the energy that will save their behinds. It oughta be us calling the shots. Not some idiot president Laughton, Jesus he’s so dumb!  He should end the war, that’s all.”

Somebody had spray painted Freedom Now across the paneling in the bar’s darker interior wall. Freedom from what, Marley thought—gravity? Could you be a little more specific? It was pissing her off.  That and the beer.

She had to say it. “Let me ask you, Nathan. We are contracted to supply Earth with solar energy. Earth is paying us for that energy. Aren’t you getting paid? Earth has given us this place to live, which cost just about all the resources left. Earth built it. Now I want to ask you, what is so unfair in that arrangement?”

“Because we don’t own the companies that will sell the energy on Earth. Because we’re just wage slaves just like our fathers. Can’t you see, we have power in the palms of our hands! Why should we just get credits on the disk?”

It was bullshit, and normally it was somebody else’s problem, not Marley’s, but these days it stood to hurt Layne. Her face got warm.  She had to keep herself from standing up and banging the table.  She just sat up straighter and glared at him. “Because you haven’t done anything to own an energy company! Nathan! Your family didn’t do anything to own an energy company! We didn’t build this place alone, if you’re thinking of calling it our very own country. So what you’re really saying, Nathan Knell, is simple.  You want to just rip it off.  And you want me to say it’s okay. Well, it’s not! It’s bullshit! And it’s the same old bullshit, too. If you want to get rich, we get our chance to buy shares in every project, we get first chance, with a company discount. And everything we discover or start out there belongs to us. So get to work and earn it.”

Nathan’s face swelled with anger. He leapt to his feet and the chair tumbled behind him in the low g until it smacked the bar; that made everyone turn.

“Damn reactionary bitch…” he was saying when Tom, Tomás, stepped around her and Josh, who was standing with his mouth open at the ugly turn in the conversation, and got right in Nathan’s face.

“Nathan. Nathan Knell, right? I’m Tom Cresey. Wanna take this outside, or you wanna stroll on home, then?” Tom Cresey looked fine with either alternative, big enough to make the first option memorable.

But Marley stepped around Tom and shoved him back, yelling, “I can take care of myself.” Then she turned her attention back to Nathan Knell.

“Listen, Nathan.” She poked a finger in his chest, hard. “I’m sure you got your reasons for saying what you’re saying. But it’s a little tough to appreciate. Here we are, living off other peoples’ sacrifices, and right when they need it, you want to cut them loose. Where is that, huh? And I still have family there. So do you. You forget what that means?”

Nathan glared at her, and started to take a step, but behind Marley, Tom Cresey exhaled, and Nathan thought the better of it. He waved his debit disk over the reader and stalked out the bar’s front exit. They watched him leave for a second, and Tom whirled around, took her hand, and said, “Let’s get out of here,” and didn’t wait for an answer. He whisked her out of the bar by the back door to the scooter parking lot.

“Hi, I’m Tom Cresey. I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced.” He offered his hand to shake and gave her a manic grin. “Want to sit down?” He gestured at the side of the building and they sat leaning against it, the observation window, the mirror turned aside now, darkened and glowing with stars above them.  

“So tell me,” Tom finally said. “How do you know all that’s bullshit?  Who taught you that? Were you really gonna hit him? You’re amazing,” he said, his face so close to hers they could have kissed. “Amazing.” Then, slowly, he drew back and broke the spell. He took her home instead. Since that night, Marley was interested. He had beautiful brown eyes, and he thought she was amazing. Two very good qualities, for starters.

Then her dad had invited him to the house, after they had consulted on some pollination issues in the farm pods, and he’d been a pretty regular visitor after that. Her dad loved to discuss the Alpha Centauri project with him. Alpha Centauri was well suited for life, apparently life capable of surviving high carbon dioxide levels, and also, happily, the closest solar system to earth, and recently NASA had shifted to private investors who were convinced we would have to find life adapted to higher carbon dioxide levels to transplant into our own ruined system, and were willing to put money up to find it.  

Of course “closest” was relative. At the old rate of propulsion, it was ten thousand years away, human time. But with the new technology, so close to coming on-line, the rumors whispered, Alpha Centauri was only four generations away. Tom said this was not a rumor, he personally knew the engineers.

Layne loved Tom’s visits. Tom knew Latin because he was a traditional Catholic, he’d explained. Outside the science fiction fantasy online clubs, Marley never knew anybody who liked Latin. Tom taught Layne to say, Canis meus id comedit, “The dog ate it,” in case he ever forgot his homework, when he was old enough to have homework. Besides, Tom played stud poker for actual money. That knocked Layne out. All the games their family played were the “everybody wins,” boring kind.  Layne even seemed to enjoy it when he lost. Tom was teaching him to count cards in Latin. Every time Tom made Layne smile, Marley’s heart turned over.

He talked to her dad and mom, he talked to Layne, he talked to Marley a lot. Even if it was only about biological stuff, he gave her a tingly feeling. But they talked about a lot of things. If he was courting her, it sure was low pressure! She was okay with that. It was just so great to be friends—with a guy! He hugged her sometimes—but he hugged Layne too. Last night, though, he’d asked her if he could call her. Just her. Maybe things were about to change.

Marley’s phone rang. Well, somebody ought to get to work around here. Or maybe it was Tom! She answered briskly with her name and section. A husky voice she didn’t recognize at all said, “Marley, Marley, listen: this is a shielded transmission. Three minutes before the snoop rats run the sweep.  Eiren said you were a friend of earth.” He paused so she could register the name: Eiren, her best friend from school, back on earth. So she must have joined the US’s terrorists. The voice continued: “You can help us. We’ll be coming with the next group of solar specialists from Virgin Sun. The flight leaves tomorrow morning. We’re in pre-flight here at Canaveral. They have been infiltrated. They will attempt to put the panels out of service. They hope that oil continues to dominate, to force a premature agreement with the west.  We will fight them, we will prevent it. Just get us through the air lock tomorrow morning. You know what to do. Get us through the air lock. We can do the rest.”

In spite of the urgency, Marley only partially listened to him. She was thinking about Eiren. As shocking as the voice and the message was, as shocking as the idea of guerrilla US counter-terrorists using terrorist tactics themselves was, it was more shocking that Eiren would ever join them. Eiren was so nice she would change the subject if you even started to gossip about somebody. What had happened to her?

But Marley thought she knew. Terrorism had promoted the most extreme Muslim groups, and western women were pushed to protecting their life styles under western capitalism against another kind of tyranny, which Marley, though she didn’t much like the “freedom,” of the west, happened to agree was much, much worse. The very idea of polygamy made her feel sick. And women covering up all the time from head to toe like men couldn’t control themselves, didn’t have to control themselves. Screw that. There were no compromises, apparently. None that worked so far. If Marley were on earth, she’d have to choose, too. The escape hatch was jammed, no place to go. Eiren had chosen. Marley couldn’t! Could she?

The voice continued. “Marley, think! What will happen to the colony if the US goes under? You’re not self sufficient yet. Give us a chance. The microwave has to come on-line. Then we can force a fair agreement. Make a choice! Get us through the air lock!”

Then the voice was gone. Marley sat holding the receiver in shock. Make a choice. She had made a sort of a choice, once. She had supported the right for little Muslim girls to wear their dull wrappings at Layne’s school. She called the principal personally and used the words freedom and America a lot. She got her friends to call. And then a well covered third grader blew up the cafeteria.

Would she make a bad choice now? But there were no good choices!

“Jess, get off the phone,” she whirled into her co worker’s cubicle and touched her arm.

“Ed. Gotta go. No. Yeah. No, I’m busy,” she hung up the phone with a look of relief, and pushed her skinny chin and her spikey hair, red today, right up in Marley’s face.  “Like, what, girlfriend?”

“Jess, have you had any strange phone calls or emails lately?” Marley watched Jess’ expression intently.

“Nah, my mother’s been taking her meds. Does Ed count?”

“I gotta go home, Jess. Can you handle things here?”

“Man, I told you, you should stop going on the rag. That menstrual toxin is making you weird.”

“Uh uh, Jess. I enjoy being a girl.” Marley grabbed her bag and hit the door. “I got my cell. Call me if anything at all strange comes up. I mean it!” Marley grabbed her stuff from the locker and left before Jessica could object.

Jessica had told her the truth, Marley was sure. They’d only contacted her. The airlock was the weak link, she’d thought so herself. And they thought she was the weak link in the airlock. She had to talk to somebody! Her dad? She thought of Tom. Whoever she told, it would mean trouble for them. Maybe she shouldn’t tell anybody, or do anything. But that would have consequences, too.

Her mom’s scooter was gone, but her dad’s and Tom’s both were leaned up against the fence. She tried to slow her breathing and look normal, for Layne’s sake if nothing else. He was playing with his hot wheels on the porch. He hadn’t gone to school. He looked worried, but he tried to smile at her as if nothing happened. He had on clean khakis.

 

“Quid agis?” Layne said.

“Nothing, what’s up with you?” She studied his pale face secretly.

“Why you home?” He looked weak, but his glance was sharp as ever. She’d better lie well now–he’d be her toughest audience, and he was the one she really didn’t want to worry.

“Well, you know I worked extra last week? And they have this thing called comp time, you know, they compensate you with time off if you work overtime, so the chief said, ‘The weather’s nice, we owe you, Jessica can do it, go home.’ Isn’t that great? Want to go for a walk later, before I got school?”

She wanted to distract him with the promise, and it worked. He squeezed her hand tight and his eyes shut at the same time, and asked one of his weird questions, “Marley, did God make any other people in outer space?”

“I don’t know yet. We have to find out.” They walked into the house together and found her dad and Tom having breakfast in the kitchen. Bacon from the pork pod, eggs from the chicken; egg production was absolutely great in zero g, and meat, incredibly tender. Production had slowly climbed, but even so there were days when pickings were slim at the commissary. This was a feast. They didn’t ask her about work, since her schedule was not absolutely regular anyway, and did require comp time when bigwigs visited, but Tom’s face lit up when she arrived. He made plates for both of them.

She sat at the table, but could not bring up the phone call. The men were deep in a discussion of the new self repair software for ramjets, which Marley’s dad was supervising the trials for, out among the farm pods, with miniaturized versions. There were bugs, but overall the software seemed to work, which removed at least one obstacle to interstellar projects. Dad was describing what he had seen to Tom, when the phone rang. He excused himself.

Marley and Tom immediately turned to each other. “I want to ask you something.”  They both said it at the same time. Then they both said, “You first,” and had to laugh.

Tom took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll go. Marley, listen. I know we haven’t known each other for long. What we’ve been through, it feels longer. I feel like I know you. I think I could love you. I think I already do love you. I’d like to spend more time with you and see if you, if we, could love each other enough to go on a special journey.”

Marley sat forward and listened hard. “What kind of journey?”

“Well,” Tom said, “to Alpha Centauri.”

“Alpha Centauri!” she exclaimed. “Alpha Centauri! That’s a lifetime away, there and back. Unless they’ve done something to light speed while we’ve been gone!”

“No, you’re right, it is a lifetime. More than a lifetime, counting time on the ground. But here’s the deal: Virgin Sun’s commissioned ten arks and a contest. First ship to make it wins a million dollars and trading rights.”  Marley knew all about arks. They’d been theoretical until recently, when the self-repair software that would overcome the seven year limit on hardware became possible. Small ships equipped with warp drive and ram jets that could scoop diffuse hydrogen and burn it for fuel in a proton-proton fusion, like ocean whales but as fast as anything yet designed by humans could go, one tenth the speed of light.  As long as the hydrogen was streaming in the same direction they were going. They could hold several families and were meant to be gone for generations. Alpha Centauri had always been the first goal, best chance for developed life. Virgin Sun wanted the trading rights, and earth wanted the potential infusion of new life forms.

“So we have warp drive?” she asked.

“No, not yet. She’s fitted for H bombs, an Orion type. The best estimate is one hundred thirty years. One way.”

“So, are you asking me to go with you, my whole life? To leave the colony and my family for my whole life”

“I’m asking you to consider it. I’m asking you to let me get to know you, and you get to know me. Marrying me. And partnering with Jimmy Blain and his wife in the ship and in the contest.  Jim and I have been in negotiations with Virgin Sun since earth, we’ve got their commitment. She’s ours! Can you believe it? She’s the Regina Coeli, wait ‘til you see her! Layne could go with us if your folks would let him.” 

“Marrying you?”

“Yeah. Just me. The old fashioned way. Marrying me, for life, and having kids and everything. Matter of fact, lots of kids. Founding a huge family and winning the contest and becoming the first interstellar trading family ever. Marley, honestly I think we’ve got what it takes to do that. I know you do! And so do I. We could fall in love. We’ve got six months before the Regina Coeli takes off.” He had his slightly manic grin that melted her heart and made her want to leap off tall buildings at zero g.

“Why do you think I’ve got what it takes?” She couldn’t believe it, she wanted him to convince her!

“One, you always stand up for something. Two, I don’t know why I like you so much. I don’t think there’s a reason exactly why you like somebody. But I could listen to you forever. Three, you’re Catholic, you know what I mean by marriage and family. We’d never be coming back, you already know that. But our family would be coming back, and would probably go back out again. It depends on what we find, and where we find it. Marley, we were born to go! See if you could love me! I want you to go with me!”

“Never be coming back?” Asking, she didn’t even know if she thought this were a good thing or a bad thing.

“No,” he said. “We’d leave it all.” Then he grinned. “But we’ll still have e-mail.” As if he knew that everything else could change, as long as you could still check your e-mail. So what if it was slightly dated, traveling by laser only at the speed of light? They could get family news only a little later than, say, the first missionaries to the American colonies.

“Well, while I’m thinking about it, how could we be Catholic? How will we go to mass? How will the kids get confirmed? And confession, and everything?” Marley asked him in a rush.

“Cause my brother’s a priest, on earth right now being consecrated a bishop, and he’s carrying the papal commission to consecrate other bishops who can consecrate priests, and he’ll be in charge of a substantial chunk of diocese, I can tell you! Like the whole Milky Way! We’ll have priests and the sacraments all right!  You’ll love him. We’re twins.”

Marley was speechless. A diocese as big as the Milky Way?  Getting married on a spaceship? Honeymooning on a mission to Alpha Centauri?  This was some courtship!  Love at the speed of light. “We’ll make history, won’t we?” she said thoughtfully.

“Yep,” he smiled, and raised his sweet brown eyes to hers. “Yeah, we’ll make history. Real love, a space race, and, I mean, they’ll have to change the whole World Cup.”  The World Cup? Then he grinned and his eyes sparkled and she wondered she would feel this way every day for the rest of her life, all tingly because she couldn’t tell if he were kidding or not.

He stopped talking and they sat there at the table and looked at each other. Then he remembered. “What were you going to ask me?” But her father came back in the room. He looked grim, even though he glanced at both of them shrewdly, as if he suspected what was going on. It suddenly occurred to Marley, that her father and Tom might even have discussed it. This made her feel happy, to be loved.

 “That was my foreman. They intercepted a transmission on a closed channel up in the pods. He said the transmission said there’d been an explosion at Canaveral on the shuttle that was due here tomorrow morning. They think it was terrorists. Everybody killed. All shuttles will be suspended until further notice. It looks like you’re out of a job, Marley!” Her dad sat down heavily. Yes, it had finally come to the colony. Anyway it had tried to. Were they self-sufficient enough to do without the shuttles for a while? Maybe just.

“What did you want to tell me?” Tom whispered.

“It can wait now,” Marley said, and her expression must’ve puzzled him under the circumstances, but he left to see what was happening at his station, and so did her Dad, and she and Layne sat by themselves while Marley thought about it all, the explosion, Tom’s amazing proposal, the colony, being human, being Catholic.

Marley and Layne took their walk. They walked the long way to the observation deck, where you could see out the big window all the way down to earth.  They stood and looked at earth. It was so far away. They were so high.

“Do you miss it?” Marley finally asked Layne. “I don’t think I miss it.” She sighed. “Not really.”

“Me neither,” said Layne.  He reached up and took her hand and said seriously, still staring at the earth far below them, “Marley?” he said wistfully. “When will we fall down?”

She stooped down next to him and put her arm around his thin little shoulders. “Never,” she said. “We’re not ever gonna fall down, Layne. Now we’re in space. Space is big, Layne. I think space might just be big enough for us.”

She paused and considered the earth below. It was so incredibly beautiful from this distance. And it was filled with incredibly beautiful and precious people, too. But their points of view, so necessary to them as human beings and as sinners still learning to be human as God had wanted them to be, differed. Differed so much they killed each other. They might continue to do so as long as there were human beings. She remembered a television interview she had heard with some Talking Head. The president of some commission or other, a man in charge, who said, “We will end the conflict,” whatever conflict he was talking about among the hundreds, the thousands, “when there are no more murderers.” But Marley knew there would be murderers as long as there were free men. There would also be saints. It was the price of freedom.

She tightened her grip on Layne. “See, Layne, we human beings, we need space. We need lots and lots and lots of room. What we believe in takes so much room, when we’re all jammed up with other beliefs, there’s not enough room. But now we’ve made it to space. We can believe in what we believe in, without bothering anybody else. You’ll see.”

Layne looked up at her thoughtfully. “Are you gonna go with Tom?” She hadn’t thought he had been listening. She always forgot he wasn’t a baby anymore.

“I think I might.” She knew she already loved Tom. “You could go too. If you want. If it’s okay with Mom and Dad. You’re gonna love space. In space we’ll have lots of space.”

 Layne grinned at the goofy sentence. She grinned back.  “No, but I mean it. We won’t have to make war. There’s enough room out there for all of us and for what we believe in. I think it’s how God wants it.” It would be interesting, living in the Regina Coeli where everybody believed in God, made room for Him in their life. It would be just like the old days, and the frontier. She realized how much they had neglected, trying not to “offend” anyone. Trying to live on earth.

“I’ll tell you all about it. Anyway, we’re not going to fall down, Layne. We’re gonna be okay.” 

“’Kay,” he said. Then they went home, holding hands. Through the observation window, the moon and the earth were both full, and in spite of everything it was a beautiful night.

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