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  • Launch

    Launch

    Jane Harrison tells the story of man's voyage to Mars—and the dating troubles that ensue.

    He tried to high five her as the rocket took off. The mission director crackled over the radio, “You’re go for launch,” and he raised his hand, a hopeful smile hidden inside his helmet. She was looking at all of the buttons. They only had to push one to initiate the boosters, but her fingers were trailing along the others, a nervous habit picked up during training. He didn’t have time to awkwardly rescind it, as the ship’s thrust sent his arm back down to violently whack against his seat.

    "AW FUCK."

    That’s when she looked at him, and then pretended she hadn’t heard anything.

    They’d been selected two years before. Both had had an interest in their families’ genealogy, but hadn’t realized that sending in their DNA qualified them to be drafted for the DAWN initiative. The message was curt and sunny. “You are the most genetically perfect man in our database! Congratulations, you’re going to Mars!” Both tried to decline, but worldwide campaigns and daily visits from their respective prime ministers guilted them into accepting their fate. “AN HONOR TO SAVE OUR SPECIES” and “WE THANK YOU IN ADVANCE—A message from the people of the world” plastered every screen and billboard in their neighborhoods. A committee of nations had chosen them to be the Adam and Eve of the next Earth, and you can’t argue with a committee. A pack of suited men wheeled his sick niece to his door. He leaned through the frame down to her small face, and she whispered “The men say you won’t help everybody. Why, Uncle?”

    Under his breath, he said “Aw fuck.”

    They met once, at the first photo-op, but ended up in separate training facilities due to a disagreement between their nations about what Mars would be called now. Her country wanted New Earth, his country wanted Earth 2. He tried to ask his handlers on the first day if he was going to get to know her at some point, but they shuffled him onto a vomit comet and he was too busy puking to ask again. He had tried to send her a message about six months in, but his handlers intercepted it, knowing that if he screwed this up now, one of them might jump off a bridge or back out or something. Better to just get them on the ship and let them figure it out from there.

    Once they had broken through the orange sky and into the color-sucking black of space, checked every animal embryo and seedling in the ark tank, taken inventory all of their clones in the cryogenic hatch, and set the auto-pilot onto warp speed, they slept for a day.

    When she awoke, she wandered down to the hatch, staring through the glass panel at a sea of her own face, sleeping. She envied them. They would only dream of single dots of stars, pinpricks through a sheet of black construction paper, each with their own story and meaning, while she would be staring at white streaks for the next five years. Her sister selves had been harvested a month before launch, with assurances each would have her same memories and worries. “They’re just a back up,” they said. “We’ve put a lot of money into you, we wouldn’t want to waste all that money now would we?” She had nodded mechanically, the same nod that had become her only side of any conversation.

    As she climbed into the breakfast bay, she saw he had already set out a cup of rehydrated coffee substitute for her and looked up from his cup expectantly. There was an eagerness in the lines of his face, an eagerness that turned her off of men’s dating portfolios. She nodded her thanks and took a sip. She spit it back into the cup. He had made it terribly sweet, and the rare taste of sugar took her by surprise.

    "I don’t take sugar."

    "Oh, yeah, sorry, of course, sorry."

    They began, with histories, families, jobs, songs, films, foods. Nothing was lining up.

    "Do you know that band?"

    "No. Do you do this mandated hobby?"

    "No. We don’t have mandated hobbies."

    "Oh."

    He ventured into something philosophical, too quickly, hoping to break through the things that made them different and get to a greater universal truth. He questioned “Why do people do anything?” apropos of very little, and she answered “I don’t know.”

    She avoided him for the next few weeks.

    She would hear the doors make their soft “ping” as he padded through the ship, and quickly and quietly moved from the library to the swimming tank, from the gym to the ark. She would stare at the seedlings for hours, push her hands against the jars of otter and platypus embryos, whispering “Grow, grow. I will be here when you are ready. I will be your new mother.”

    He searched for her with feigned indifference, masking a semi-frantic mind, worried about fixing the first conversation. “Oh, I guess she’s not in here,” he said to no one, picking up a book and casually flipping through without ever focusing his eyes. After twenty seconds, he would set it back down and wander to the next distraction.

    On the third week, they hit a cloud of dust or asteroids or something. It wasn’t a possibility that they had told him about. They said “Just a straight shot right there. No worries.”

    The lights turned red in the control room, sirens started blaring, and he grabbed the nearest wall handle just as the ship lurched. His legs flew out from under him and he was horizontal to the floor, weak fingers straining to hold on.

    The ship learned how to navigate the asteroids in one ten-thousandth of a second, corrected itself, and switched back to cruising mode by the time the “FU” in “AW FUCK” rang from his mouth. He swung against the metal wall with a thud. Shaking his head, the ringing fading away, he adjusted his eyes to the now white lights. One beep continued in the silent ship, one blinking red light on the dashboard, under the multilingual label for “LIFE SYSTEMS.”

    It indicated a problem in the ark, and he took off running.

    He found her next to the jars, facedown in-between the shelves of sleeping baby animals. He took her pulse, sighed heavily, cleaned up the remains of Jar RB1.27, a small pink rabbit, little tufts of new ear meat poking out behind its scrunched eyes, and then he cried for two days. He followed the protocol, sent the remains into space, and woke up Female Passenger FP-B.

    When she came into the breakfast bay the next morning, he had rehydrated coffee substitute waiting for her, no sugar.

    "Thank you," she said. He smiled internally.

    He skipped over the interests conversation, and asked her about Ana, who she had mentioned in passing the first time. She was surprised that he knew her name. She became animated, telling him stories about late night dancing on the square in her home city, describing getting prepared for the night as Ana would paint delicate designs on her face with a paste made from ground chalk and clay. He wondered aloud if they would find anything similar on Mars to make the paste, and she started to cry.

    Again, she hid from him for weeks.

    One day he finally caught her playing ping pong with the table pushed up against the wall in the recreation deck. He asked if he could play, and she looked around and shrugged as if to say, who else would play? He didn’t know if her implied question was a joke or an act of surrender.

    It became their daily activity. He started out letting her win, and then slowly grew more and more comfortable until the competitive streak that his friends teased him about started rearing its head. A few weeks in he won the first game, and then the second, and eventually yelled “Booyah!” with a large laugh. She stared at him, said “congrats,” and left for the ark. That night, he unzipped his bed, grabbed a book, silently paced through the control room for three hours, and then diverted the CO2 for the seedling room into her cabin. He followed the protocol, sent the remains into space, and woke up Female Passenger FP-C. He would try again.

    He ended up making a fair amount of progress. She had even started watching movies with him in the theater, and let him hold her hand. Then she said a movie from his country was “incomprehensible” and they ended up having an argument. She went to her cabin to sulk, and he slunk away to the control room to go through what was now his protocol. As his hand hovered over the screen to draw a route with his finger diverting the gas, he found that all of the cryogenic indicators were off from FP-B through FP-T. There was no way he was eighteen in. He’d only done it once or twice, he wouldn’t do it more than that, that seemed... wasteful? How could he have used so many? His breath caught in his throat, and he navigated to the screen for the other cryo-hatch. No lights, all the way to MP-H. He turned on the com to her room.

    "Um, Viv?"

    Her voice came over the speaker, flustered and grumpy, coughing out sleep.

    "What? Why are you up?"

    "Have you been killing me?"

    The silence hung limp while the static from the com chattered softly.

    "I don’t know what to-"

    He started laughing.

    "Why the fuck are you laughing?"

    "AW FUCK. I’m really sorry Viv, uh, I’ve been killing you too."

    "Meet me in the breakfast room, we need to talk."

    He turned off the com and shook his head, giggling all through the long corridors of the ship. She was sitting at the table drinking an insta-tea, and looked up sheepishly.

    "Ben, I’m sorry." she said.

    "Really, it’s okay, I have literally done the exact same thing."

    "I just, I was trying to get to know you and sometimes you would fuck it up or I would fuck it up and it just seemed easier if we... could just..."

    He took a breath. "Okay. Well. Every time we killed each other, we lost everything we had learned. So what if we just, stop doing that, and try harder? We can just wait it out. You can go sulk in the ark, I’ll go freak out about upsetting you, but we’ll both be making progress. Honestly, all I want to know is who you are. You don’t even have to like me. Does that sound like a deal? "

    She searched his face for something to distrust, but his strange frivolity about the whole situation was making it hard to be mad at him for killing her too. There was no anger or resentment, no searching need to convince her of something that she knew was inevitable. He was just, speaking to her, completely honestly, no motive. Just two people who had been silently murdering each other in their sleep. She didn’t want to lose this gain.

    She set the tea cup down and held her arm across the table.

    "I would like to get to know you too."

    They shook hands.

    ***

    You can find Jane online here and on Twitter @MeJaneYouShutUp.

    This story was written for Give Me Fiction, a prose reading series hosted by Ivan Hernandez. You can follow GMF on Twitter, check out the podcast on iTunes, RSS, Soundcloud, and Stitcher, and buy tickets for the live show which takes place the first Sunday of every month at San Francisco's Lost Weekend Video. The next show is GMF XIV: Tradition on December 7th.

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