©2010, Pete Koziar, all rights reserved
Jim Matthews sat staring at his phone. He could just put it back in his pocket and head over to the airport this afternoon, as he had planned. Then, he looked back over his shoulder at the group he had met at the conference, and frowned as he considered the invitation he had just received.
With a sigh, he dialed his wife, and pondered how to tell her that he would be arriving late, again, this time to the vacation they had so carefully planned. He supposed he could lie and tell her that he had missed his flight, or had an emergency.
He had never lied to her before, and this wasn’t going to be the first time.
She answered the phone and, when she saw his frown, said, “What’s wrong, Jim?”
“Nothing… nothing, Carol. I just…”
“You’re going to stand us up again, aren’t you?” she replied, with an exasperated look on her face.
“You know that paper I wrote last year, just for fun? About how to reverse engineer an alien artifact, if we ever found one? Well, I just met a group here from the Starfarer project, and they read it! They want to discuss it with me over dinner. I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. The Starfarer project!”
“Next you’ll be telling me we’re moving to Mars Dome?”
“No, honey. It’s just one day. We still have almost two weeks together.”
She shook her head and said, “Ok, but you’re the one who’s going to have to tell Angel that her daddy won’t be there tonight to meet us in New Miami!”
Jim groaned, thought for a minute, then said, “OK, put her on.”
A little girl, about six years old, took her mom’s place on the screen. She said, “Hi, Daddy! We’re going to have fun in New Mee-anni tomorrow! Mommy said we’re getting there tonight, very late, and I have to be a good girl and not fuss even though I’m going to be very tired. You’ll see, daddy! I won’t fuss!”
Jim swallowed hard and said, “Angel, daddy is going to have to be a day late. I… I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon, not tonight. Something came up here, and…”
“Oh, daddy. You’re always late!”
“I’m sorry, honey. We’ll still have lots of fun together!”
She pouted for a minute, then said quietly, “OK, daddy.”
“I love you so much, sweetheart!”
“I love you too, daddy.”
“Put mommy back on.”
The little girl turned slowly away and the image swung wildly around the room as she handed the phone back to Carol.
Carol said, “One day, Jim. OK? No more. I don’t care if aliens land right there!”
“Thanks honey. This is real important to me.”
“You’re impossible, you know that?”
“Yes, I do. Love you, Carol.”
“Love you too, Jim.”
Jim had a wonderful time with the Starfarer delegation. At the end of the meal, Don, the section lead, said to him, “You ought to consider coming to work on the project. Why don’t you send me your resume?”
Jim laughed and said, “Me? Well… I don’t know. I don’t think I can move my family to Mars Dome. Plus, I only have my thesis defense to go until I’ll have my doctorate.”
“Well, think about it. Hey – why don’t you join us for breakfast?”
“I’d like that. My flight out isn’t until mid-morning.”
They bid goodnight, and Jim headed up to his room. He did a search on the net, and read with rapt attention the latest news releases from Starfarer. He always felt childlike awe when he considered that his generation would be the first to attempt travel to other stars. He clicked raptly through the images of the first of the six massive ships beginning to come together in its assembly station in Mars orbit.
To be a part of that… He sighed, realizing that he could never talk Carol into moving to Mars. To get his mind off the project, he took a brief look at the news on the net, where it said that the terror alert had been raised due to the usual “credible but unspecified” threats, this time from the Mexican separatists. He shook his head and muttered, “Another day, another threat to the North American Union.” He sighed again and said, “Another reminder that the world won’t be at peace until my Lord returns.”
He prepared for bed, knelt to pray, then threw himself into the hotel bed. He was looking forward to the next day, when he could finally rejoin his family.
The next morning, he walked down to breakfast to find that Don was already there. He told Jim that he was buying. Jim nodded, and smiled to himself. He was already thinking of arguments he could make to Carol to try to convince her to move off-world. He didn’t think it would work, but at least he got a free breakfast out of it. He said to himself, “If the Lord wills, anything is possible, I suppose.” He still took Don’s card.
After breakfast, he was walking out of the hotel restaurant when he glanced at the news on the screen in the lobby. He saw displayed there a shocking image of a very large building, partially in ruins, most of the rest on fire, with emergency vehicles strewn frantically around the streets.
He walked closer, and heard the commentator say, “…we repeat, there was a major terrorist attack on the Sea Gold hotel in New Miami early this morning…”
Jim had his phone out in an instant, frantically dialing Carol. There was no answer.
Without the strength of the Lord, he never would have made it through the next two weeks. All the arrangements had to be made to transport the bodies back to their hometown, and then there was the usual hysterical blur that accompanied any funeral. When he was alone, he would say to himself, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Sometimes he would whisper it, sometimes he would wail and beat at the walls of his house, but at the end, he washed his face and did what needed to be done.
A Sunday night, a few days after the funeral, his pastor, Sam, came to call along with Bob, an elder in the church. After Sam opened in prayer, they sat in silence for a few minutes. Then, Jim said, “Would you like anything to eat? I’m drowning in casseroles right now…”
Sam replied, “That’s OK, Jim. We didn’t come here to eat.”
They sat in silence for a minute, then Jim said softly, “I should have been there with them. They shouldn’t have died alone.”
Bob responded, “Jim, if you would have been there, you would’ve been dead, too. God has preserved your life for a reason.”
Jim said, “It would have been better to be with the Lord than to try to live without them. What am I supposed to do now? I can’t stand it in this house anymore, with all our things, all of…” He paused for a moment to compose himself, then continued, “All of Angel’s things. The Lord has taken away the most precious part of me, and I’m scared to see what’s left.”
Sam leaned forward and said, “Jesus knows your pain, Jim. Someday, you’ll see Carol and Angel again. He’ll wipe away all your tears.”
Jim said softly, “He better start now.”
Bob and Sam stayed with Jim several hours. They read the bible together, and prayed. Then they left, leaving Jim alone again in the big, empty house.
Jim walked into the bedroom, past the suitcases that he realized he hadn’t even unpacked. He opened them up, and dumped the wadded-up clothes out onto the floor. He stood staring at the pile for a minute, then realized picking them up and putting them in the wash would give him something to do. When he lifted them, a little card fell out and fluttered to the ground. Jim suddenly remembered Don.
He set the clothes back down and sat on the floor next to them, pondering the little cardboard rectangle. He said to himself, “I wonder if Mars is far enough away?”
He picked the clothes back up and put them in the washing machine, leaving the card on the carpet. He walked back into the room and prayed, “Lord, I don’t understand what’s going on, but I almost never do. I pray this isn’t the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
He picked up the card and walked over to his laptop. His resume needed some work, but he didn’t feel much like sleeping. As he opened up the lid, he saw that there were emails from his adviser, expressing condolences and asking him when he would be ready to reschedule his thesis defense. Jim got busy typing and, without realizing, the first rays of sun began to penetrate his fog of grief.
Five weeks passed, and Jim decided that Don must have only been being friendly. He had just gotten home from work, and was sitting at his laptop, scanning the list of open positions for engineering PhDs at his current employer when his phone rang. It was Don.
Don said, “Hi, Jim! Or, should I say, ‘Doctor Matthews?”
Jim replied, “Hi, Don! You’re a little early – the doctorate isn’t official for another month.”
“But you’ve gotten past the thesis defense, right?”
“Just last week. Word must travel fast to get all the way to Mars so quickly!”
“I’m not on Mars, Jim. I’m right here in town. I know it’s short notice, but have you eaten dinner yet?”
“Why, no. I just got home.”
“I just got into town this afternoon. You know any good places to eat? Really good?”
Jim listed several high-end restaurants. Then Don asked, “Can I buy you dinner?”
Jim thought for a moment, then said, “Sure!”
“I’m bringing someone along that I want you to meet. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all.”
A few minutes later, Don pulled up in an expensive rental car. He got out, and to Jim’s surprise, from the other side of the car, someone climbed out that Jim recognized as Dr. Ben Finster, the director of Starfarer.
Over dinner, the talk quickly turned to Jim’s thesis, and then onto his background. Don and Dr. Finster were subtle, but Jim recognized that he was being interviewed, but the questions went far beyond what he would have considered applicable for a researcher position.
As Jim was sitting after the meal, stuffed with all the good food, he got up his courage to ask, “Am I still being considered for the position we talked about at the conference?”
Don looked him straight in the eyes, and said, “No, Jim, you’re not.”
Confused, Jim still managed to mutter, “Well, thanks anyway for dinner…”
Then Dr Finster said quietly, “I was sorry to hear about your family, really sorry. But that might have opened up a possibility none of us had considered before. We’d rather you apply for one of the crew positions.”
Jim sat, speechless for a moment, then said, “The crew? For the starships?”
Don said, “It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s not guaranteed you’ll make it through the program, but I think you have a good shot at it.”
Jim said, “I… I don’t know what to say!”
Don said, “We’re hoping you’ll say ‘yes!’”
Jim replied, “I… I… can I tell you tomorrow morning? I never make a decision like this without sleeping on it.”
Dr. Finster laughed and said, “I didn’t expect you to let us know tonight. I want you to consider carefully that, by the time you return from the trip, if you return at all, hundreds of years will have passed. Unfortunately, I can’t give you the time to think about it that I’d like you to have. Most candidates had months to prepare, but we’re going to have to ask you to make a decision on very short notice. The deadline for this round of applications is already past, but we haven’t gotten any qualified candidates for the technology specialist. I can still get you into the program, but we’ll only be on Earth for two more days and I need to hear your decision before then.”
Jim replied, “You’ll certainly hear by then!”
As soon as they dropped Jim back home, he called his pastor, Sam. Jim explained what had happened that night and asked him for advice.
Sam said, “Jim, it’s your decision. I’ve known you and… I’ve known you for ten years now. It has always seemed to me that the Lord had something in mind for you, but you hadn’t found it yet. Maybe this is it. It could be that the Lord needs someone to evangelize that world, hundreds of years from now. Maybe, instead, you really do need to go away and be alone with him, to be in the wilderness so he can heal your wounds. I can’t tell you what to do, but I’ll pray for wisdom for you. With God, all things are possible. But Jim…”
Jim asked, “What?”
“If you do move to Mars Dome, make sure there’s a sound church there to attend?”
Jim laughed and said, “I sure will.”
“Call me when you’ve decided?”
Jim nodded and hung up.
He wound up not going to sleep that night, but praying fervently until the next morning. He then called his employer and told them he needed to take a personal day. He took a shower, combed his hair, and called Don.
Turned out, there were several sound churches in Mars Dome.
Six months later, Jim was sitting in the waiting room of a psychologist in the Starfarer headquarters near the urban center of Mars Dome. He was quietly reading his bible on his portable reader, stopping to pray from time to time. This could go very well, but if the psychologist was rabidly anti-Christian, he’d be packing his bags soon.
The door to the waiting room from the outside hall opened, and a woman walked in. She was attractive, about Jim’s age, with curly brown hair and dressed in a formal business suit. She sat down on a chair facing away from Jim. Then she got up, paced back and forth, then sat down again. She pulled out her portable reader, scrolled down the text, scrolled up the text, then put it away again.
Jim asked quietly, “You here for the psych test, too?”
She jumped, as if she had forgotten he was there, then turned to look at him. She said, “Yes, I am. My name is doctor… it’s Sarah Greenberg. Sarah, you can call me Sarah.”
Jim nodded and said, “Jim Matthews. I’m up for the position of technology specialist. How about you?”
“Ship’s doctor and biologist.”
She noticed Jim’s wedding ring and asked, “What does your family think of your trying out for a crew slot?”
Jim replied, “I’m sure they’re very happy. They’re… they’re with the Lord.”
“With the Lord? Oh! I’m sorry!”
“It’s OK. It’s been over six months now. I just haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can take the ring off. Not yet.”
Sarah got up and sat directly across from Jim, the said, “It takes time.”
“How about you? Any family?”
“Just my mom. My dad died about a year ago. I never had the time to start a family. Maybe it’s because…”
“My mom and dad broke up. It’s a long story.”
The door into the office suddenly opened, and Sarah jumped again. The receptionist said, “Dr. Matthews? The doctor will talk to you now.”
Jim nodded, and Sarah said, “Good luck!”
Jim replied, “I don’t believe in luck. I’ve been praying that God’s will would be done. I’ll pray for you, too!”
Sarah smiled weakly and nodded.
Jim smiled back, and turned to follow the receptionist through the door.
Jim occasionally bumped into Sarah after that. He supposed that they must have passed in the halls many times before meeting in the psychologist’s office, but never noticed each other. As time went by, they were stopping to talk more and more with each other, and even ate lunch together from time to time whenever their schedules matched.
Then, about a month after the psychological eval, he received an email from Don saying that he had pulled some strings and arranged a meeting with the crew of The Dauntless that morning. Jim scowled, thinking, “One more ship I’m not going to be on. Only two more crews to get chosen, and then I guess I figure out something else to do!”
He sighed, and wondered if he needed to dress up. He decided against it.
When he showed up at the conference room mentioned in the note, Don wasn’t there. To his surprise, Sarah walked in accompanied by another woman he’d never met. When Sarah saw Jim, she said, “Oh! Are you here to meet the crew of The Dauntless too?”
Jim nodded and said, “It’s very strange, isn’t it? I hope this isn’t our consolation prize for being cut from the program!”
The woman with Sarah said, “Hush! Don’t talk that way! By the way, my name’s Madison. Madison McAllister”
Jim responded, “I’m Jim Matthews. What’s your role supposed to be on a crew?”
Madison said, “Linguist and cultural specialist.”
Jim started to say something, but a man walked in the door. He was tall and muscular, walking with the smooth precision of a military officer. As soon as he entered, he stood surveying the room with a practiced eye. After a few moments, Jim said, “Hi, I’m Jim Matthews. Are you here to meet the crew of The Dauntless?”
He nodded and said, “Cliff Harper”
Before Jim could ask him any more questions, another man slipped quietly into the room and took his seat. The group became silent and looked in his direction. After a few moments, he asked, “What?”
Madison said to him, “Hi, I’m Madison McAllister.”
The man nodded and said, “Tony Milone.”
Jim looked around at the rest of the people in the room, and began to say something, but he was interrupted as Dr. Finster walked into the room.
The people sitting around the table looked nervously at each other, then Madison asked what was on everyone’s mind, “Dr. Finster, are we getting cut from the program?”
He laughed and replied, “Cut? Why would you think that! You’ve been invited here to meet the crew of The Dauntless, and I am pleased to announce that you just have. I wanted to give you a day’s notice so you could get to know each other a little before I make the official announcement. You’re going to be spending a great deal of time together.”
Jim looked back at him with a puzzled expression, then looked at the others around the table before saying quietly, “Oh!”
Madison said quietly, “We’re going to the stars.”
Dr. Finster replied, “Congratulations, you certainly are.”