Four years, 208 days, and 13 hours. Earth years, Earth days, and Earth hours. That was the time since the catastrophic fire and explosion at Ganymede Station 1, or GS1. GS1 was the first colony on Ganymede, the largest moon of Jupiter, and by far the most ambitious extraterrestrial effort humans had ever made. Ganymede, with its thin but oxygen-rich atmosphere and subterranean liquid water ocean, was deemed the most likely candidate for a permanent colony. The colonists knew that this was a one-way trip; their ship did not have the capability to return to Earth.
GS1 consisted of a central facility called Main, and 17 remote Cells, each devoted to a particular facet of survival. Most Cells were hydroponic units that grew or synthesized food, but one was a metallurgical unit that refined ore into machinable metals; another created various chemical compounds necessary for maintenance or research; yet another manufactured materials such as the metal-coated fabric of their space suits, necessary whenever they ventured outside onto Ganymede’s surface. Each Cell was independent, having its own fusion reactor as well as complete life-support functions: artificial atmosphere, oxygen supply, water, waste handling, and the like. Each Cell continuously transmitted complete status data to Main.
GS1 was a self-sufficient operation that had successfully sustained the eight person colonizing crew for nearly six Earth years. Their equipment had been designed for durability and reliability because orbital mechanics–those dang, unbending laws of physics–allowed a launch window from Earth to Jupiter only every 10 years and 2 months for an object the size of a supply ship. The most recent launch window was 21 months ago. The colonists had equipment to repair or re-fabricate all of the items that they expected could wear out through normal use. Each colonist had a particular area of expertise, although they were all cross-trained to at least minimal competence in each of the others’ specialties. Juan, Janice, and Brandon had been in Cell 4 tending the hydroponics.
So, when the oxygen saturation sensor failed in Main, falsely indicating a dangerous lack of oxygen, and the emergency oxygen turned on, and the oxygen content quickly reached combustion concentration, and Elliot flipped the monitor switch over the central control panel to read the alarm messages, and the spark ignited the plastic switch housing, and it burned like a flare in the pure oxygen environment, and the entire building turned into a giant Fourth of July aerial shell, sending brilliantly colored flaming debris 1600 feet into the very thin, Ganymedian atmosphere–so, when that happened and the five others were killed–mercifully instantaneously–the remaining three, Juan, Janice, and Brandon, did not lack the technical skills to survive. Nor did they lack the basic necessities. Each remote Cell had its own power source, oxygen system, and basic tools. Survival was, therefore, by design, quite likely, even in the aftermath of the catastrophic failure in Main.
The loss of their five comrades had a deleterious effect on morale. Naturally, as the first to colonize a Jovian moon, they all knew, at least on the rational, intellectual level, that death was a possibility. However, like all of their breed–that is to say, the explorers, the boundary pushers, the six-sigma types who make it all look so easy–they didn’t really think they could die, at least not now, not from an accident. Old age, sure. But not an accident. They could solve anything, persevere, make it work. But, now, five of their fellows were blown to smithereens, completely incinerated before they even hit the ground. The three survivors didn’t have to bury anyone because there was nothing left to bury. Their friends were now nothing but bursts of light traveling eternally through space, just as the primordial background microwave radiation from the first big bang continues to ring throughout the universe. They had become light. And nothing more, forever.
The initial response of the survivors, as one would expect, was numbness, shock. They did what they had to do to survive. They checked all the other remote Cells and found them all operable. With nothing left of Main, there was little forensic analysis possible. Nonetheless, Janice was the first to suggest an oxygen saturation sensor failure. Each of the Cells had a similar sensor, so the first order of business was to inspect each of those and then install a redundant sensor. At least that malfunction would not repeat.
All communications were routed through Main, up to the orbiting transponder satellite, and then to Earth. Every monitored function, at Main and each of the remote Cells, was dutifully reported to the transponder, and then, when the orbital position allowed, relayed back to Earth. Ganymede orbits Jupiter in about seven days, so for three and a half days Jupiter blocks radio communication with Earth. The explosion occurred after Ganymede had been in occlusion for 38 hours, so the telemetry transmission, including the data right up the point of obliteration, would start two days later. Earth would undoubtedly figure out what happened: the oxygen saturation sensor suddenly, in less than a millisecond, dropped to zero, without loss of pressure (in hindsight, clearly a sensor failure); the emergency oxygen supply valves immediately opened full bore to replenish the supposedly low oxygen; two seconds later Elliot pressed the emergency monitor switch; one second after that the pressure, light and heat sensors simultaneously maxed out; transmission stopped. Pretty clear.
The survivors knew that although communication with Earth was now impossible, as there was no equipment in any of the remote Cells to communicate directly with the transponder satellite, nonetheless the final communication from Main to the transponder would have indicated, along with the billions of other bytes of data, the presence of three occupants in Cell 4. At least Earth would know that part of the crew was in Cell 4 when Main exploded and so they could have survived.
The remote Cells are fairly autonomous. They do what they are designed to do with very little attention from the colonists. In fact, without meddling by humans, they just keep doing whatever they are already doing. They vary only in response to a change initiated by a colonist: perhaps to grow a little more spinach, somewhat fewer carrots, a bit more pseudo-beef. The result is that the colonists are, for the most part, mere spectators to their own survival.
So now, 21 months after the scheduled supply ship launch window, four months after the supply ship should have arrived, the three colonists spend each day and each night looking up to the sky, watching, searching for that faint glint of sun reflecting off metal, that blaze of light from the retro-rockets, that huge blossoming parachute canopy grabbing onto the thin Ganymedian atmosphere. Still they watch, even now, because hope springs eternal.
John, gray haired, wrinkled, and slightly stooped over, pushed his cart slowly through the aisles of Walmart. He still ached from the firewood splitting and stacking yesterday. At 66 years old he couldn’t split and stack as much or as fast as he used to. It was a good thing he was retired and, truth be told, he really didn’t have to split or stack any wood at all.
He always shopped Monday afternoon, after his lunch-and-checkers meeting at Mud Street Café with some of his fellow Arkansas retirees. He first stopped at the local grocery, mainly for meat and a few specialty items his wife fancied, and then he drove the ten miles to Walmart. He didn’t trust the meat at Walmart, except the deli.
All the deli workers recognized John, even though none knew his name. He always wore the same outfit: blue jeans and a khaki, industrial, short sleeve workshirt. He always had the same order: three quarters of a pound of pastrami, sliced medium; two packages of Sara Lee Honey Ham, 1.25 lbs each, sliced thin; two slabs of the same Sara Lee Honey Ham, each a quarter inch thick, in separate packages. The order never varied, as did neither his outfit nor his gait.
Every Monday John bought flowers for his wife. She liked flowers and so he tried to always keep fresh ones coming. With Walmart, of course nothing is certain, including the quality and selection of flowers, but he made the effort and she appreciated it.
The first time John went through Becca’s checkout line he thought she seemed pretty friendly, but also quick. John asked her to put the pastrami in its own bag so it wouldn’t contaminate the other meats with its overpowering aroma. She commented on the flowers; he said that his wife liked flowers. “How sweet,” she said. He wondered if she were old enough to sell beer; sometimes the young ones had to call for the line supervisor because Arkansas doesn’t allow minors to sell alcohol. Ironic, he thought: as a practical matter, a sixteen year old has easier access to beer than does a seventy year old at the Brighton Senior Home. Of course, since he wasn’t buying beer this week, the issue was strictly academic.
The next week Becca was working a checkout lane again. John unloaded the merchandise onto the belt.
“Hello. How are you today?” she asked as she began scanning.
“Peachy-keen. And how are you?”
“I guess I’m peachy-keen, too.”
Without prompting, she put the pastrami into its own bag. John noticed and commented, surprised that she remembered.
“I always try to remember what my customers want.”
John thought to himself that this was a kid who will go places. Even if only at Walmart.
Becca scanned the other items, getting to the last three on the belt.
“Nice flowers. For your wife?”
“Yeah. She’s had a pretty rough week. Maybe these will cheer her up.”
Apparently she was old enough to sell beer, because she didn’t call for the supervisor. She scanned the four-pack of tall, yellow and black cans (Boddington’s Cream Ale, “The Pride of Manchester”), the flowers, and the bottle of KY.
“Expecting a big night?” she asked, without making eye contact.
“Well, hope springs eternal.”
Joanne sat in her room at Brighton Senior Home. Every morning Ellenore helped her get from her bed to the bathroom, and then to her chair. The chair faced out the window, looking toward the woods at the edge of the grounds. Ellenore helped Joanne comb her hair–or more accurately, Ellenore combed Joanne’s hair and Joanne made occasional motions as if she were combing it herself.
Joanne stared out the window, at nothing in particular. It seemed that she didn’t even actually focus on anything specific, maybe not on anything at all. Her eyes didn’t move except to blink. Her days were all spent like this: sitting, staring, not moving. At mealtimes Ellenore or one of the other staff would help Joanne eat. Twice a week Joanne would get a sponge bath. She didn’t seem to like that much; it dried her skin, even with the lotion, and so afterwards she always scratched herself a lot, sometimes to the point of bleeding. The staff were concerned that Joanne’s family would see that as a sign of neglect or abuse, but no one ever said anything.
One reason was that “the family” consisted only of Annie, Joanne’s granddaughter. Annie’s mother, Madeline, Joanne’s daughter, had died three years earlier of ovarian cancer. Four years prior to her cancer diagnosis, Madeline had put Joanne into a senior home in Minneapolis after she could no longer function alone. Joanne’s husband had died years earlier and Joanne’s decline had been gradual, almost imperceptible, until her fall. That seemed to accelerate everything and during her convalescence it became very clear to Madeline and Joanne’s doctor that she would need permanent help. Joanne was becoming obviously confused, but was aware enough to be embarrassed about it. At first she denied, covered up, made excuses–she didn’t hear correctly, she misplaced the appointment card, she thought it was next Tuesday. But Madeline knew, she saw the signs, and was concerned for Joanne’s safety–not just physical, but also financial. Joanne was by nature very generous and empathetic; however, now the telephone scammers had her on their lists and had conned her out of thousands of dollars for dubious charities. Madeline persuaded Joanne to authorize her to handle her finances, and cut off Joanne’s credit cards and confiscated her checkbook, under the guise of needing it to pay bills. This ended the phone scam issue, but the scams were really the least of her problems.
Madeline’s cancer was very aggressive and moved quickly. Annie took a leave of absence from her job in Arkansas and moved to Minneapolis to help care for her mother, Madeline. At first Madeline continued her ritual of visiting Joanne every afternoon, now accompanied by Annie, but very soon that became impossible. The combined toll of the disease and the cure savaged Madeline’s energy and left her bedridden. Annie would appear each afternoon at Joanne’s room, explain that Madeline was sick and not up to visiting that day, and Joanne would feign comprehension and nod knowingly, although, truth be told, she was no longer sure who this “Madeline” person was, and additionally, though the woman named “Annie” looked somehow familiar, the relationship with her was none too clear, either. At least most of the time. And now, even speaking had come to seem a pointless waste of effort.
Annie had been born seven years after her next older sibling, Dan. Annie had four older brothers but no sisters. After Dan, the doctors told Madeline that she could not have any more babies. Madeline and Joanne, both devout Catholics, had prayed fervently for Madeline to have a baby girl, but it hadn’t happened, and now it looked like it never would. So, seven years after Dan, when Madeline was pregnant again, they both considered it a miracle. When Annie was born, Joanne called her “my little angel Annie,” proof of the efficacy of prayer.
Annie continued the daily visits to Joanne during Madeline’s final days in hospice. She tried to explain to Joanne what was happening to her daughter. Annie was never sure how much actually sunk in. The stare rarely betrayed comprehension, but, still, sometimes there was a slight shift of gaze, a movement, however tentative, of the head, that suggested that perhaps Joanne understood. After Madeline died, Annie tried to tell Joanne. Annie thought she saw, maybe, the feeblest turn of the corners of her mouth, the barest hint of a tear.
Annie stayed in Minneapolis for another six weeks while taking care of the final details of her mother’s passing. She arranged for the disposition of Madeline’s belongings, except for the family keepsakes; she secured a spot for Joanne at Brighton Senior Home in Arkansas, closed out Madeline’s accounts; listed the family home with a realtor. And then Annie and Joanne made the long drive to Arkansas, to Joanne’s new home at Brighton.
One afternoon, ten months after Joanne had moved into Brighton, into the “Memory Unit”, Annie stopped by on her way home from work to visit, as she was doing every day. Ellenore was in the hallway and came into the room with Annie. Annie called out her usual greeting to Joanne; Joanne turned her head to face Annie and Ellenore, beaming, and said, in a whisper intended as a shout, “Annie, my little angel Annie!”
One minute later her smile, the sparkle in her eyes, the glow of comprehension and recognition, were gone, replaced by that all-too-familiar vacant stare.
And now, two years after the last words spoken by Joanne, Annie visits each day; calls out the same greeting as she enters the room each day; listens for that eagerly-sought response each day; sees that same unfocused, uncomprehending gaze each day; but she comes anyway, because hope springs eternal.
John, gray haired, wrinkled, and slightly stooped over, pulled out his chair at the Mud Street Café for the weekly Monday lunch-and-checkers meeting with his fellow Arkansas retirees. The Mud Street Gang were the tie-dyed tee-shirts in the Arkansas camo and khaki laundry load; a microcosm: the one tiny blue island in their state’s sea of red. Stove up but still sharp as tacks, these geezers met each week to eat, recollect, and solve the world’s problems, all while playing checkers.
Bobby Dale, always the calf that gets through the fence and onto the road, was the one who suggested the radical change: checkers was fun, but, frankly, after so many years, it was getting to seem a bit repetitious and predictable. So, Scrabble.
Scrabble it was. In contraposition to their state’s 49th-out-of-50 educational ranking, these retired iconoclasts were all quite verbal and quite educated: two fine arts degrees, a psychologist, a lawyer, a business executive, a school administrator, an actor/author. Scrabble was a natural fit.
Radical change seemed to be everywhere, not just at Mud Street Café. Not radical as in leftist radical (as the Mud Street Gang was perceived by the redneck majority in the rest of the County); radical as in right wing extremist radical. Islamic hard-liners had started the fad in Iran culminating in the 1979 revolution overthrowing the autocracy of the U.S. backed Shah. As the ascendancy of communism waned, the traditionalist, nationalist, xenophobic coalitions became more popular in Europe, South America, and the U.S. The election in the U.S. of the first black president, along with the legal recognition of gay marriage, galvanized the disaffected lower middle class into a potent, if unthinking, theo-political force that ultimately bubbled the Great Orange Prevaricator to the top of the Republican cesspool and sent him smirking and tweeting into the White House.
That was two years ago.
Even with the ignominy of the impeachment proceedings daily be-smudging his image like a miniature Beijing smog cloud, the Orange Prevaricator not only continued his damaging tantrums, but upped the ante. The derangement of the Bush/Cheney administration would have taken decades more to repair, had the repair started by Obama been continued; but no–the Donald made sure to not only antagonize the Middle Eastern nations we had been trying to mend fences with, he also alienated our NATO allies, ceded Ukraine and Eastern Europe to his puppet master Putin, got the U.S. into a proxy war with China over both Taiwan and North Korea, and nearly permanently destroyed the U.S. relationship with several South American countries. All this while cutting taxes, mainly for his billionaire friends, and driving up the national debt and the cost of living through superfluous expenditures and the imposition of tariffs, which increased the costs of most imported goods–which is to say, of most goods used by the deplorable, unwashed masses that elected him. All of this in addition to cantankerously threatening to invade our border neighbors to both the north and the south.
This, then, was the background noise hissing in the aural psyches of the Mud Street Gang as they executed their own radical action agenda: Scrabble.
John, though, was still troubled. Despite the plummeting national opinion poll ratings of The Orange One, in Arkansas he still maintained a commanding popularity lead. Whether due to the aforementioned low educational status of the populace, the church-instilled distrust of anything scientific–and therefore, by extension, anything taught beyond sixth grade–or due to simple anger at the “others” on the coasts who had more jobs, more opportunities, more sophistication, more stuff–whether due to these or other unidentified factors–John knew that after lunch today, after his tribe finished Scrabbling words that few of the county’s poultry farmers or Tyson chicken choppers had ever even heard of; when he went up the hill to the County Courthouse to cast his early vote in the midterm elections, where his state representative, Bobo Ballinger, author of the state’s notorious Religious Freedom Law legalizing discrimination against your fellow citizens if your Christian church says it’s OK, was running unopposed, again–John knew that when he cast his ballot, it would be yet another vote as plaintive, as futile as the squawks of the chickens on the Tyson truck backing into the unloading dock. Nonetheless, he has voted in every election for the past 47 years and will continue not only to vote but to proselytize in every election until he dies, because, despite The Orange One, in the hearts of the decent, hope springs eternal.