Monday, November 30, 2009

nano post 65

When Nathan awoke the next morning, he turned to see Dejah's head resting on his shoulder. Her body was curled against his, knees digging into his side. He lay there for a little while, trying to get used to the feeling of sharing a bed again. Then he carefully got up, trying not to wake her and got dressed.

When Dejah awoke hours later, she found her muscles more stiff than they had been in months. It was the long flight, she decided. Twelve hours aboard a shuttle were enough to make anyone feel stiff. She stretched and pulled on a robe before heading into the living room.

Nathan was seated at the kitchen table, carefully placing several blocks on top of each other, then making notes in a notepad that rested on the table beside his hand. He was so intent on the model that he didn't see Dejah enter, and she watched him in silence for awhile.

The small building grew slowly, and Nathan's notes grew longer. Finally, he leaned back in the chair, exhaling, and caught sight of Dejah sitting on the couch, watching him.

“”Dej! I didn't hear you come in! Sorry, I didn't hear you come in. I didn't mean to ignore you.”

“No, it's alright, I enjoyed watching you.” She smiled. “It's been a long time since i've done that. I forgot how much I always enjoyed watching you work, you just throw everything you have into whatever it is that you're working on.”

“Well, I try,” he replied. “It's getting harder to get inspired now—my designs sell well, but nobody wants to let me keep some creative control. They just want to turn it all over to their construction crews, who of course make all kinds of changes and cut corners when they can.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to start complaining! I'm actually getting paid well so I have nothing to protest, really. Are you hungry? I don't know what I have in the pantry, but I could always run down to the store.”

She nodded. “you know, I hadn't thought about it, but yeah, I am pretty hungry. Weeks of hospital food, and food pouches before that...just not the same. And anything that's in the pantry is fine. I guess we'll need to go to the grocery store soon. It's going to be a little weird with two of us again.”

Nathan opened the pantry door and began pulling out cans of food. “Let's see, there's carrots, corn, sandwich mix, water chestnuts...why do I have water chestnuts, anyway? Um, looks like that's about it, except for a couple of really old cans of beans in the back.” he grinned sheepishly. “Like I said, living like a bachelor. I ended up eating out a lot. Spent a lot of time in Parsecs.”

“Can we go there? I forgot how much I missed it, there wasn't any place like it in Bradbury Dome, at least not that I ever found. Everything was too far away from Dandelion to get to during lunch, anyway. And I want to see Shelle—the kids are going to be so big by now! The youngest is almost two now, isn't he?”

Nathan looked slightly relieved. “That sounds like a good idea. We can stop by the store on the way home from lunch, and I know Shelle would be thrilled to see you. And yes, I think Pete is about two. He's a cutie, very much the charmer.”

Dejah quickly got dressed, and in a few minutes they were approaching the familiar restaurant. Dejah felt relieved that it had changed so little in the years since she had visited it.

Shelle was behind the counter, entering a bill into the register, and waved happily when she saw them come in. “Hey! Max said you'd gotten home safely, but I didn't expect to see you here so soon! I'll be over in just a minute.”

Nathan pointed out a booth near a sunny window, and they slid in. Dejah closed her eyes, feeling the warm sunlight on her face. “This feels nice, I've been inside too much lately.”

Shelle made her way over and gave Dejah a quick hug. “Wow, it's already been two years! The time goes so quickly, doesn't it? I watched all of the news stories when you came back from the pole, that was really something. Felt like watching the stories about the early colonists when I was a kid, you know? You got any plans for what you're going to do next? After something like that, you'd be able to take your pic of any number of jobs!”

Dejah shook her head. “No, not really. I'm going to have to be careful from now on, I'm afraid. This body got me out to the Phoenix and back, but it won't go that far again. I'll be working from this Dome from here on out, I think.”

“Oh damn,” Shelle muttered. “I'm sorry, Dej, I didn't know, Max didn't say anything. Well, no matter what, you've given us all something to look up to. That's a pretty big deal. Ah, I should stop babbling, you guys didn't come in to listen to me! Do you know what you want to eat?”

They gave her their orders, and she left to give them to the kitchen. Dejah slid her hand across the table, feeling the sunlight warm her skin.

“you feeling cold?” Nathan asked, watching her.

“No, I just miss having the sunlight. You know, even up there, where there were only a few hours of sunlight every day...It was incredible to be right out in it. I always feel like the Dome is filtering out too much of it.”

“Well, it has to filter some of it. The radiation is pretty intense. They may be able to one day increase the atmosphere here, get in some more oxygen and water, and ditch the Domes, but that's at least a hundred years away.”

She shrugged. “That would be a filter all its own, you know. It wouldn't be the red planet anymore. I like it the way it is.”

Nathan sat quietly, watching her as she looked out the window. Several transports went by, and once she saw a group of laughing University students on their way to the shops downtown.

She heard someone approach, and turned to see Shelle returning to the to table, holding a sturdy little boy by the hand. “Hey Dej, I hope you don't mind, but I really wanted Brian here to have a chance to say hello. He watched all of the news reports with me, and he's even got a little model of the Phoenix on his dresser at home. We're hoping to take him to the museum in a couple of months, he's been asking to see it ever since they showed the restored one on tv.”

She turned to the boy, and pointed to Dejah. “Do you recognize her, Brian?”

He nodded solemnly, and clung to his mother's side. “Yeah.”

“Well, aren't you going to say hello? She hasn't been here in a few years, but she's known you ever since you were a baby. She had to go get the Phoenix, but she's back now.”

The boy looked at Dejah with serious blue eyes, and said, “We talked about you at school. My teacher says that you're the last real explorer. Is that true?”

Dejah smiled slightly, and shook her head. “I hope not. We haven't explored all of Mars yet, and there's always things to be done. And in a few decades, people will start going to Europa, and that will be a whole new set of adventures.”

He thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “I think I'm gonna be an explorer too. 'Long as Daddy can come with me.”

the three adults laughed, and Shelle patted her son on the back. “Ok, sweetie, let's go ahead and let them have some time alone now, alright?” She herded him back toward the counter, mouthing a “thank you” to Dejah as she left.

“that's gotta be pretty inspiring,” Nathan commented, fiddling with a packet of imitation sugar that lay on the table. “you said you got a lot of letters from school kids. Were they all like that?”

Dejah shrugged. “More or less. Most of them probably aren't going to be interested in exploring in a year or two, it's just hot right now. Maybe a few of them will move to the colonies, or try to get a job at one of the companies that's still doing exploration. But the truth is...the truth is, there really isn't much that's left to be done. They'd have to have some kind off crazy drive inside them to go into the field at all, and most of them were raised to think of safety first.” She sighed, and turned back to the window. “They're going to have to be willing to risk it all, just on the chance of finding something. Not too many of those kinds of people left in the world, I'm afraid.”

Nathan laughed. “Except for you. And your team. It's people like you who inspire that spark of daring in people, that make a change.”

“Maybe a little bit. But it would have been better if I could have gone on with field work, even if it wasn't the big stuff. How are those kids going to react when they realize that I may not even be able to fly the Valkyrie again? You think they want to take that kind of risk?”

“you don't know that you won't be able to fly it. Sure, you won't be able to do the daredevil stuff you used to do. But you may be able to take it up again.”

Dejah was about to respond when Shelle brought their breakfast, and they began eating in silence.

“thanks for taking me here this morning,” Dejah said as the door to 12 Parsecs closed behind them. “I needed that little bit of familiarity, I think.” She glanced around the street. “I don't really want to go home, do you mind if I just wander around the town for a little while? I need to reorient myself.”

“Sure,” he agreed. “I've got a pretty flexible schedule for the next month or two, so I've got the morning free.”

She glanced down at the red dust before looking back at him. “I'm sorry, Nathan, but is it ok if I go alone? I need to figure out where I fit in here, and I need to do that by myself.”

Taken slightly aback, he hesitatingly agreed. “Oh...alright. Just don't let yourself get too tired, ok? Call a transport if you need it, and I'm only a quick comm away.”

She nodded, and kissed his cheek. “Thanks. I'll be home later.”

She turned and walked down the street, taking in the new storefronts that had opened. The streets seemed more crowded, and once or twice she saw young families going about their business.

Marcus' shop was open, but Dejah decided against going in. Too much, she thought, too soon. Some other day.

She wandered for an hour, making her way slowly through the parts of the town that she had once known like the back of her hand. Without realizing it, she had made her way back to the University campus, and paused at the sight of the familiar arched entry.

On a whim, she turned to the right and passed under the arch. The campus looked as it always had, she thought, with a momentary feeling of elation. There was the four dorms, and the central plaza, with the Spirit memorial in the middle of it. Students were walking along the paths, some on their way to class, others headed for a meal, and others, she assumed, just enjoying the sunshine.

She passed between the Wells and Holst dorms, and came out into the central lawn, and made her way toward the center and the memorial there.

There were a few students perched on the low wall around the plaza, but they seemed to be ignoring her, lost in their studies or other projects, and she walked up to the high pedestal that held the Spirit. She laid her hand on the concrete pillar, and looked up at the rover.

“Hey, friend,” she whispered. “Remember me? Been a while, hasn't it.”

the concrete was slightly warm to her touch, and leaned against it for a minute, feeling the warmth seep into her body. “Phoenix is back, now. She's in the museum in Bradbury Dome, and she's been restored, too. She was in pretty bad shape, but they got her put back together pretty well.”

She felt the weight of the pendant against her chest and grinned. “Well, mostly put together. Apparently, there is one missing piece of a solar panel that had to be reconstructed.” She pulled out the chain, and ran a finger around the edge of the fragment of solar panel, feeling it warm in the sunlight.

“Hey, are you ok?” she heard the voice behind her and quickly turned around to see a student with a concerned look on his face. “I saw you slumped up against the thing here and I thought you might be sick or...” his eyes widened as he suddenly recognized her. “Oh gods, I'm so sorry, I didn't recognize you!”

She shook her head. “No, it's alright, I didn't stop to think about how it might look. I used to spend a lot of time here when I was a student. Sometimes at night when no one was looking, I'm climb up and sit next to Spirit and talk to her. She's a pretty good listener.”

“You know, you're a real hero around here these days,” the student commented. “It's the biggest thing a University of Mars grad has done in years.”

“Well, it's a good school,” she commented, looking around the campus again. “I really enjoyed my years here.”

the young man looked slightly embarassed as he dug a textbook out of the bag slung over his shoulder. “Listen, I'm sure you're busy and I feel kinda silly asking this, but...would you sign my geology book?”

Dejah looked at him for a moment, then broke into a laugh. “Of course! Excuse my laughter, I don't mean to make fun of you, it just struck me as funny.” The young man handed her a pen and she quickly scrawled her name on the front page of the book. “Hey, what's your name?”

“Um, Jared.”

She wrote under the signature, “Always look forward, Jared. Adventure is just over the horizon.” closing the book, she handed it back to him.

“Thank you so much!” he stammered, carefulyl stowing the book back in the bag. “Wow, I didn't even know you lived in Spirit City.”

“Just got back yesterday, actually—I lived in Bradbury Dome for two years while we put the mission together.” She stuck out a hand and said, “Well, Jared, I have to get going, I want to see the rest of the campus before it gets dark. But it was very good to meet you.”

He shook her hand eagerly. “I still can't believe I got to meet you. Thanks!”

she smiled, and made her way across the main lawn to the Robinson lecture hall. As Dejah walked up the steps to the familiar building, she could hear the sounds of a class in session. She took the back stairway up to the balcony where she had often watched the new students being welcomed to the school.
She leaned against the wall to stay out of sight as much as possible, and peeked out into the auditorium. Doctor Livingstone was addressing a group of students; it looked like a regular class, but it was impossible to tell what the class subject was. Dejah grinned, remembering the many “big picture” lectures she had sat in during her student days.

“It's not enough for us to convince people to move to Mars, to start a new life here, if we don't have any way of making that new life better. Mars isn't Terra, and we have no desire to be like Terra, but with the influx of new colonists every year, we'll be inundated if we don't keep creating our own culture. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that only scientists or builders are the creators out here. Anyone can add to the culture, and all of you should. Leave behind the consumer culture that you, most of you anyway, were raised in. Learn to become producers again, make things, help us grow into the brave new world that we know this can be.”

the class dismissed shortly afterward, and Dejah made her way down the stairs. As usual, there was a small knot of very earnest students surrounding Doctor Livingstone, asking about the lecture and the ideas he had been explaining. He was sitting on the edge of the stage, deep in the conversation, and making sweeping gestures, trying to communicate the passion she knew he had for the red planet.

He caught a glimpse of her, and waved her over. With a smile, she approached and joined the group.

“Ms. Sorenson! I had no idea you were back! I heard that you were going to be staying in Bradbury Dome as a consultant to the museum!”

She shook her head. “No, they asked, but I turned them down. Museum work really isn't my forte, and I'm really not much of one for honorary positions.”

He looked around at the group of students, who had suddenly fallen silent, surprised at the addition to the conversation. “I'm sure you all recognize Ms. Sorenson from the vids that have come out of Bradbury Dome in the last few months. She is, of course, a graduate of this university, and is one of the best examples of what I was talking about today. In her freshman year, she designed and flew the Valkyrie. I can see that some of you are familiar with it. Most of the gliders in use on Mars today are based on that original design. Then after graduation, she went to work for Dandelion Corporation, and fought to present her proposal for recovering the Phoenix. Of course, you all know her recent adventures. This is exactly the sort of person that we expect to come from this school.”

Dejah felt her elation slowly slipping away, replaced by a sinking feeling. For a few minutes, it had almost felt like she was a student again, as if the whole world was out there for the taking. But she'd taken her bit of it, and her part was over now. She ran her eyes over the remaining students, feeling a twinge of envy at the eager expressions on their faces. They could still do anything, be anything, discover anything.

“really,” she protested as soon as Doctor Livingstone paused, “don't listen to him, he always exaggerates things. Lots of University grads have gone on to do extraordinary things. Just keep working at it, you'll make your mark in time, too.”

Chattering excitedly, the students finally made their way out of the auditorium, and Dejah leaned against the edge of the stage. “It really is good to see you again, Ms. Sorenson,” Livingstone repeated. “I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable there, but it really is an exciting thing to see what you've done.”

She nodded, trying to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat. “Yeah, I get that. The problem's something that is done.” She emphasized the last word, and Livingstone nodded in recognition.

“Facing that moment when you realize that your biggest accomplishment is behind you now?”

She nodded.

“We all come to that point, you know. Or die before it happens, but that's fairly rare. Are you familiar with A. E. Housman, the Terran poet? No? Ah, that's a shame, he's written some truly lovely things. One of his more famous pieces is called 'To an Athelete Dying Young.'”

He cleared his throat, and quoted:

“Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

“Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

“Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”

the word died into silence in the large space, and neither of them broke the quiet for several minutes. Then Livingstone spoke again, “It's hard to hear that, you know that. And most of us, unless we die in the middle of our victory, have to face that moment when the record is cut and our names begin to die. You're facing that now, or at least, you're facing the emotion of it. It'll be years before that trek of yours is surpassed, but the news is already moving on to other stories. In a few years, you'll be able to wander around town and not have anyone recognize your face. But if I know you, that's not what bothers you the most, though you're certainly not happy about it.”

“I miss the excitement,” Dejah said quietly. “I really felt alive out there, you know? Just me and Mars, the dust and the wind, the ice...Things were very simple, and even when I thought I wasn't going to make it, I loved every second of it. Now because I lived it once, I can never live it again. Now I get to sit and watch others go out there, and most of them don't even appreciate it. They complain about the dust and the ice, and try to hurry back to the safe little Domes.”

“I thought it might be something like that. Believe it or not, I often feel the same way.” He glanced toward her, and laughed at her confused expression. “no, I do, I do! I loved being a student back on Earth. My teacher was a fantastic scholar, and I've never met anyone who pursued the truth more doggedly than he did. He was always open to changing his mind if anyone could show that he was wrong. Everything was like a book to him, every tree, story, and person. It was because of him that I started the University here. And of course, I'm well known now for having done so, but other schools will come. Some are already here, though their missions are a little different from ours. And because I have to be the main 'in charge' person here, I don't get to just sit and have discussions like I used to be able to. More people get to learn now, and that's a very good thing, but it was an exchange that still pains me sometimes.”

Dejah listened, deep in thought. “Was it worth it?”

Livingstone nodded. “Yes, very much so. I'd make the same choices again if I had to. There's a very special kind of joy that I get, watching my students pass me, go beyond anything that I could ever do. But it feels a little bit like what death must feel like, I think.”

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