The Only Sky I’ll Ever Know

IMG_6121(Wrote this one so long ago that I only vaguely remember doing so.)

“I don’t know, John.  Sometimes I wonder if we’re meant to be out here at all.  All these setbacks, maybe they’re nature’s way of telling us to get the hell out of here.”

John Taggart raised his glass to his lips, savoring the smooth burn of properly aged Tennessee whiskey as it trickled down his throat.

“Nothing like a little taste of home.”

The whiskey, a gratuity from one of the commercial asteroid miners who’d recently returned from delivering a shipment of diamonds to Earth was a luxury he didn’t indulge in all that often.

Not that he didn’t want to, of course, but the scarcity of commodities from Earth forced him to ration it more sensibly.

Just as well.  We have enough problems around here without having to deal with a raging alcoholic for a colony supervisor.

He eyed the man sitting across the desk from him. “You know what your problem is, Beckett?”

Aaron Beckett, chief architectural engineer of the settlement at Candor Chasma, regarded his old friend with suspicion.  “No, I don’t.  Please enlighten me.”

“You lack vision,” said Taggart.  “A sense of wonder that feeds the exhilaration of discovery.  All the great explorers had it. You don’t.”

Beckett swished the last few drops around in the bottom of his glass and shrugged.  “Yeah, well, I doubt any of your great explorers had to cope with such a hostile environment as this one.  And no amount of nostalgic romanticism on your part is going to help us work out a feasible plan for conjuring up an artificial magnetosphere.”

Taggart’s eyes roamed across across the dusty red terrain beyond the thick plasma glass of his office window.  “Are you familiar with the old American West?”

“Vaguely.”

“Well,” continued Taggart, “I like to think of myself as a pioneer.  Taming the untamable land, fighting against nature; it’s what mankind has always done.  We don’t really belong anywhere, do we?  But we force whatever environment we find ourselves in to adapt to us.  “We’re cowboys, you and I.”

“Uh huh.”

“Just humor me here, okay Aaron?  Just open your mind for a few minutes, long enough to hear me out.”

Beckett sighed and leaned back in his chair.  “Alright, fine.  I’m listening.”

“As I was saying, we’re cowboys, and this is a frontier town.  We’re out here on our own.  The bureaucrats back on Earth, they want instant results.  They can’t appreciate the time and dedication it takes to pull off a project of this magnitude.”

“So what else is new?”

“They’re pulling the plug, Aaron.”

Beckett nearly dropped his glass.  “What?”

“Got the communiqué a few hours ago.  They think we’re wasting our time out here.  They didn’t quite say it in those terms, exactly, but that was the gist of it.  They want to cut their losses and bring us home.  Call the whole thing off.”

Beckett remained silent for a few moments, absorbing the reality of what he was hearing.  “Shit.”  He shook his head. “I should have known. Soon as they get a Republican in office they start slashing our budget all to hell.  When are we shipping out?”

Taggart knocked back the remaining contents of his glass.  “I’m not leaving.”

The engineer laughed, a little uneasily.  “What the hell are you talking about, John?”

“You heard me.  I’m.  Not.  Leaving.”

“Are you out of your goddamned mind?”

Taggart shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Were the Colonial Americans out of their goddamned minds when they took a stand against British tyranny?  What about the Myanmar rebellion of 2013?  Would you question those poor peoples’ sanity for finally overthrowing a brutal military dictatorship?”

Beckett sighed.  “Do you know how ridiculous you sound?  You can’t stay here.  They’ll have you forcibly removed and discharged from ISA.”

Fuck them,” said Taggart disgustedly.  “Bunch of ass-kissing pencil pushers.  I’ve invested far too much of myself into this project to simply throw it all away.”

“Hey, we all have John,” said Beckett sympathetically. “But there’s an old saying.  ‘You can’t fight city hall,’ I think is how it went.”

“I can and I will,” said Taggart.

“You’ll lose.”

“Then so be it.  I’m not giving up without a fight.”

“You always were a stubborn son of a bitch, John.  It’s served you well more often than not, but this time I think it’s going to bite you in the ass.”

Taggart returned his prized bottle back to its locked drawer and rose from his plush office chair.  “Let’s suit up.  I’ve got something to show you.

*

“What are they, microbes?”  Beckett stood hunched over a high-powered microscope, unsure of what, exactly, he was looking at.

Dr. Yamata, a tall, slender man of Japanese descent shook his head.  “Nah. These suckers are multicellular.  We’re talking about possible organ level of cellular organization, here.  Similar to platyhelminthes, but a bit more complicated. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Palmer and Connelly came across them during them during their dig yesterday,” said Taggart.

Beckett backed slowly away from the microscope.  “Shit,” he breathed.  He turned to Taggart.  “Have you contacted ISA about this?”

“I sent them a message this morning,” he said sourly.

Beckett clasped his friend’s shoulder.  “This is good news, isn’t it?  I mean, surely this changes the entire situation.”

Taggart shot him a warning look.  Too late.

“What situation?”  Dr. Yamata peered quizzically at the two men.  “What are you talking about?”

Taggart smiled.  “Nothing,” he said with a dismissive wave.  He turned to Beckett.  “Nothing at all.”

The Doctor looked less than convinced, but seemed content to drop the issue.  “Okay.  Well, I’m gonna head over to the common room and take a little break, maybe play some chess if Gonzales is around. See you guys later.”

As soon as Yamata was out of earshot, Beckett lit into the other man.  “And just when were you planning on telling everybody else?”

“When it’s necessary.”

“Yeah?  And when’s that going to be?”

Taggart rolled his eyes.  “When I decide that it is.  Look, if there’s a chance that we can salvage the mission, what’s the point of bringing down morale by letting them know that all their hard work up to this point means jack shit to the suits back home?”

“You have a point,” Beckett relented.  “So why did you tell me?”

“Because I had to tell someone.  Besides, after listening to all of your bellyaching I thought you’d be pleased to hear the news.”

“Oh, fuck you, John.

Taggart grinned.  “It gets pretty lonely out here sometimes, I’ll give you that.  But I’m not that desperate yet.”

*

The reply came four sols later.

Significance of discovery understood.  Situation unchanged. Budget permits no further investigation.  Gather all salvageable equipment and launch ASAP.  Acknowledge.

Taggart stared at the monitor until the words temporarily burned themselves into his retinas.

“Bastards,” he spat, fumbling around for his prized bottle of whiskey.

He unscrewed the cap and downed what was left of it, hurling the bottle across the room.  To his dismay, it didn’t break; just bounced off the wall with an unsatisfying clink.

“Damn it.”

There was a knock at the door.  He ignored it.  Another knock.

“Come in!” he hollered.

It was, of course, Beckett.  “What the hell do you want?”

“Cheery as always, I see,” said Beckett, his eyes involuntarily drawn to the discarded bottle lying on the floor.  “Bad news?”

Taggart said nothing.

“So what are you going to do?” asked Beckett.

“I meant what I said.  I’m not going anywhere.”

Beckett stared at him.  “You’re serious.”

Taggart drummed his fingers on the desk and shrugged sheepishly.

“Damn it, John, you can’t survive out here on your own.”

Taggart stood.  “Why not?  There’s more than enough food in storage, not to mention hydroponics.  The greenhouses and extractors will provide me with more than enough oxygen and water.  And I’m perfectly capable of performing routing maintenance on all the equipment.”

Beckett paced back and forth in front of the desk. “Damn it, you know what I mean. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that all of your physical needs will be met. Did you stop to think about your mental health?  How many years of seclusion will it take to crack that damn stubborn mind of yours?”

Taggart smiled.  “I spent my childhood holed up in my bedroom reading science fiction novels and building model rockets.  I’m no stranger to isolation.”

Beckett glowered at him.  “And just what in the hell do you plan to do with yourself?”

Taggart gazed wistfully out of the window.  “Grow a beard.”

“What?”

“You know, a beard.  Kind of like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. Been dying to grow one for about twenty years, but they’re against regulations.”

Beckett didn’t get the reference, but he let it go.  “A beard,” he said doubtfully.  “That’s your plan so far.”

“Among other things, yes.”

“Such as?”

“Same stuff we’ve been doing all along.  Collecting samples, analyzing them, and reporting back to ISA. Maybe do a little exploring. I hear Cydonia Mensae’s nice this time of year.”

Beckett groaned.

“Look, they may not want me out here,” continued Taggart, “but they’re sure as hell not going to refuse valuable scientific information.”

“And you don’t think they’ll come after you?”

“Why should they?  I’ll be completely self-sufficient.  They won’t have to pay the mining contractors to ship in materials from the asteroid belt anymore.  And they’re certainly not going to spend the money to send a ship out here to pick me up.  They’ll just write me off.  Probably tell the press I’m dead.”

Taggart saw the pained expression on his friend’s face.  “Come on, man, what am I going to do, go back to Earth and walk around like a gimp for the rest of my life?  Hell, I’d probably be stuck in a damn wheelchair.”

“It will take awhile, sure, but with rehabilitation—“

Taggart cut him off with a flippant gesture.  “Please.  These old bones and muscles will never be the same after ten years of low-gee, all that time spent in the gym notwithstanding.   The rest of these guys are young enough to recover, in time, but me?  Nah.  Not interested.”

Beckett knew he was right.  Taggart would become an emaciated old relic, propped up on stages at various ISA functions, giving speeches and reminiscing about past achievements.  In short, they’d use him.  He’d be a symbol of what ISA claimed to stand for.

On the other hand, he could remain on Mars and make a difference.  Actually writing history rather than becoming a part of it.

“Alright, fine.  You’ve somehow managed to convince me,” he conceded.  “I don’t like it, but I understand why you’re doing this.”

Taggart stared at him for a long time.  He stood up and walked over to window, hands clasped behind his back.

“Somewhere along the line we forgot how to dream, Aaron.  Science today is geared more toward entertainment than human advancement.”

He began circling the room.  He picked up the empty whiskey bottle, scrutinized the label for a moment, and then tossed it in the trash.

“We’re still dying of ancient diseases,” he continued.  “But by God, we can upload our likenesses into three-dimensional holographic action movies and watch ourselves blow each other to bits.”

“And you alone are going to put us back on track, is that what you’re saying?”

Taggart spun around.  “No, smartass, not by myself.  But sometimes it takes one man to spark change.  I hesitate to call myself a visionary.  A dreamer, perhaps.”

Beckett rolled his eyes.  “I’ve known you for the better part of a decade, and you continue to surprise me.  I had no idea you were such an egomaniac.”

Taggart shook his head.  “On the contrary, I’m being forced into this position.  I’d like nothing better than to disappear into the woodwork and let other people hog all the accolades.”

He sat down again, rubbing his temple.  “Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but space exploration isn’t quite as popular as it once was.”

He picked up the small model of a lunar module that he kept on his desk as a paperweight, examining it fondly.

“Back in the old NASA days, Astronauts were considered heroes.  Kids wanted to grow up to be just like them.  People of all ages stayed glued to their television sets whenever a space launch was broadcast.”

He gently replaced the paperweight and folded his hands.  “But now, two hundred years later, nobody cares.  Think about those first astronauts, Aaron.  Think about what they were up against.  The unknown dangers that awaited them out there.  But they stepped up to the plate and did what they had to do, all for the benefit of mankind.”

Beckett chuckled softly.  “You and your cornball idealism.”  He threw up his hands. “Well, buddy, it’s your life.  You’ve got to follow your principles, I suppose.  You always did.”

Taggart gazed distantly across the room, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere. “Yeah.”

*

The butterscotch haze of the Martian sky at dawn never failed to arouse a sense of childlike wonder in John Taggart. The only sky I’ll ever know.

The finality of the situation slowly began to sink in as he watched his colleagues board the ascent pod that would launch them into orbit.  There, they would dock with the ERV and commence the lengthy and hopefully uneventful trek home.

Only Beckett lingered behind to exchange parting words.  There had been no heartfelt goodbyes from the crew.  The general consensus was that Taggart was a selfish bastard for staying behind.

Fine, he was prepared for that.  He could live with the resentment.  He respected the hell out of them all, and he empathized with their animosity toward him.

The two friends stared silently at one another through the tinted, reflective surfaces of their helmet visors.  Taggart tuned his suit’s transmitter to a private channel and paged Beckett.

“So this is it,” he said.

Beckett nodded.  “So it would seem.  You know, John, it’s not too late.  There’s still enough room on the pod for you to board.  I made sure of it, just in case you got a wild hair up your ass and decided to change your mind.”

The edges of Taggart’s lips formed a wry smile.  “More leg room for everybody else,” he said.

Beckett sighed.  “I’m gonna miss you, buddy.  Damned if I know why, but I’m gonna miss you.”

Taggart thrust out a heavily gloved hand.  “I’ll be alright.”

Beckett accepted it, and the two men shook hands vigorously.  “Well,” said Beckett, “We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.  Better get going.”

“Happy trails, cowboy,” said Taggart.  He turned around and began walking back toward the habitat.  Beckett watched him for a moment, and then made his way over to the pod.

From his office window, Taggart watched as the launch rockets propelled the pod upward into the early morning sky, leaving a towering pillar of white smoke in their wake.

Before his former crewmates were out of sight, he snatched up his planner and exited the office.  It was quite surreal to see the habitat so thoroughly abandoned, he reflected.

He strolled down the empty, windowless corridor to the common room.  The smell of freshly brewed coffee still permeated the air.

Pouring himself a cup, he eased into one of the functionally uncomfortable chairs that littered the lounge.

The planner beeped as it booted up, and Taggart began mapping out his work schedule for the next week.

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