They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day ~ A Short Story
by Allen Kopp
It was a lonely, rocky place with liquid water and an atmosphere like earth’s. They had only each other to keep from going crazy while collecting the data they would take back home. Vance was older with other missions to his credit; Fiske younger, not long out of training.
Fiske was tired, had caught a bit of a cold. (“How do you catch a cold when there’s nobody to catch it from?”) Vance told him to relax while he prepared the evening meal. When the food was ready, Fiske was asleep. Vance touched him lightly on the shoulder. Fiske opened his eyes and sat up.
“Come and eat before I give it to the hogs,” Vance said.
“The nearest hog is millions of miles away,” Fiske said.
“We don’t know that for sure. I think I heard some rooting around outside last night.”
“Why didn’t you wake me earlier? Wasn’t it my turn to cook?”
“Thought you needed to sleep.”
“You’re too good to me.”
Before eating, Fiske did what he always did, marked another day off the calendar.
“How many to go?” Vance asked.
“A hundred and thirty-seven.”
A storm was brewing, so after the meal was finished Vance went outside to make sure everything was secure and nothing would blow away. When he came back inside, Fiske was checking the day’s transmissions from earth.
“Anything important?” Vance asked.
“Usual stuff. Status updates. Nothing very interesting.”
“No personal messages?”
“Want to play a hand of cards before bed?”
“Not tonight,” Fiske said. “Headache.”
Vance opened the medicine chest and gave Fiske a couple of pills. “These will help you to sleep,” he said.
When they were in bed, Fiske turned his face toward the wall and made little snorting sounds.
“Having trouble breathing?” Vance asked.
“No, I guess I’ll live.”
“Are you crying?”
“Of course not.”
“If you want to cry, it’s all right.”
“I said I’m not crying!”
“What’s the matter, then?”
“I didn’t get a message from Linda. Again.”
“She’s probably busy with that day job of hers and taking care of her mother.”
“I think it’s more than that. It seems she no longer has anything to say to me. We were going to get married as soon as I got home.”
“I’m not so sure now that it’s the right thing to do.”
“Maybe you weren’t meant to marry Linda. Isn’t it better to know now before it’s too late?”
“Does it make any difference to you?” Fiske asked. “Not having anybody to go back to on earth?”
“What makes you think I don’t have anybody to go back to?”
“I don’t know. I just figured.”
“There is somebody, but I don’t talk about it to the people I work with.”
“You can talk about it to me.”
“It’s better if I don’t. You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?”
“Ever been married?”
“Once. We went our separate ways after five years.”
“Must have been tough.”
“Not really. Not as bad as having a tooth pulled.”
“Do you ever see her? Talk to her?”
“No. That was the point of getting the divorce.”
“You don’t know where she is?”
“I don’t care.”
“Couldn’t you at least have remained friends with her?”
“You’re a hard case.”
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep tonight,” Fiske said. “I keep thinking about Linda.”
“Read a book. Get your mind on something else.”
“I’ve never been much of a reader. I’m more of a doer.”
“Get up and do some work, then.”
“This storm has me on edge. Just listen to the wind howl!”
“I don’t mind it,” Vance said. “I’ve always liked being snug inside with a storm raging outside.”
“I’ve accepted that we’re going to die here.”
“From the storm? I don’t think so. We’ve seen worse storms than this.”
“People die on alien planets all the time.”
“I have no intention of dying.”
“What do you miss most about earth?”
“I don’t know,” Vance said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, I suppose. Bananas. How about you? What do you miss most? Besides Linda, I mean?”
“Oh, everything,” Fiske said. “Trees and grass. Birds and flowers.”
“When people colonize this planet,” Vance said, “they’ll bring those things with them.”
“Maybe people have no business living in places like this,” Fiske said.
“Earth is no longer big enough. It’s time for the human population to expand beyond our puny little planet.”
“Humans! We think we’re so important but we’re not. The earth would be better off without us.”
“You don’t want to see other planets colonized?”
“Not especially. I just want to go home.”
“Go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Fiske said. “I would never have been able to stand this place without you.”
“That sounds strangely like a compliment,” Vance said.
“I just want you to know how I feel before it’s too late.”
The next day radio communication with earth was lost. Vance believed it was a temporary aberration that would correct itself in a day or two, but Fiske took it as another sign that he and Vance were going to die.
“They’re not coming to get us,” Fiske said.
“What do you mean?” Vance said. “Of course they’re coming, but it’s not time yet. They’ll come at the designated time.”
“We’ll be dead long before then.”
Fiske became ill with his lungs and Vance, not being a doctor, didn’t know what to do with him. All he could do was keep him comfortable the best he could.
“Soon you’ll be at home with Linda,” Vance said.
“That’s all over,” Fiske said. “I won’t ever see her again. She’s nothing to me. Only you matter to me now. I only want to be with you at the end.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
Two weeks later, radio communication with earth still had not been restored.
“Maybe everybody on earth is dead,” Fiske said.
“That’s absurd,” Vance said. “Of course they’re not dead.”
“I wouldn’t care if they were.”
“You’ll feel better in a couple of days,” Vance said, “and you’ll stop having those gruesome thoughts.”
“It’s just you and me now and I’m happy.”
Soon Fiske was not able to leave the bed. Vance lay beside him for hours at a time and when Fiske needed something Vance got up and did it. If Fiske was shivering, Vance held him in his arms until they both slept.
Vance soon became ill in the same way that Fiske was. He was no longer able to take care of himself or Fiske either. He believed for the first time that he and Fiske were indeed going to die and it seemed proper and fitting that it should be so, just the way Fiske had said.
Sometimes when he slept he had frightening dreams about being in a place of inky blackness where he couldn’t move his arms and legs and where he called out for help but no help was forthcoming. Once when he awoke from one of these dreams, he stood up to get a drink of water and as he was crossing the tiny space in the dark, something odd about the radio registered in his brain. All the controls were turned off. He hadn’t thought to turn them on. That’s why radio communication with earth had been lost for all those weeks. He laughed at himself and returned to bed.
Fiske stirred in his sleep and Vance leaned his weight against him, threw his left arm over him and put his nose near Fiske’s ear the way he was used to doing, but something wasn’t right. Fiske didn’t have the bulk, the volume, of a human man. Vance turned on the light and gasped when he saw that what he thought was Fiske was a pillow and a rolled-up blanket.
He stood up and looked around the room to see what had become of Fiske. He called Fiske’s name but there was no answer, just the way it had been in his dream. It wasn’t until he saw his own reflection in a mirror that he knew that Fiske wasn’t there, had never been there.
Vance had been the only man to volunteer for the mission that could accommodate only one person. He didn’t mind the loneliness, he said. He had known loneliness before and loneliness was nothing.
Hadn’t there been someone named Fiske back on earth?
Oh, yes. Fiske was a dark-haired younger man with fetchingly arched eyebrows that Vance had been drawn to. Fiske was like no other, sensitive and sweet. The two of them became close in a way that nobody would have guessed, even if they had tried. When Vance saw that Fiske meant to marry a debutante named Linda, he was wounded. He had had too much to drink, made a scene at a party and embarrassed Fiske and himself. Everybody was talking about it. That was why he volunteered for the lonely mission. He hoped he would die and never have to face those people again.
His fever broke and he drank some water and ate some food, after which he slept for many hours. When he awoke, he sent a transmission back to earth to the effect that he had been sick but now believed he would live. My head is bloody but unbowed, he said. I am master of my fate and captain of my soul.
Copyright 2015 by Allen Kopp