Mark turned his speakers to full blast as he continued to maintain his garden. It wasn’t much, but little green signs of life were beginning to emerge from this foreign soil. He bent down and touched one of these plants.
“You’re gonna grow into a big, corn plant one day,” he said to himself, pleased.
The speakers continued to blast one of his childhood favorites.
“…’till touchdown brings me ’round again to find, I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh, no, no, no…”
Mark had been manually drifting in and out of cryosleep since his mission began. He did what he was told to do – he wasn’t a man who liked to break rules – but indulged himself in side projects while he was waiting. The garden was one of the said projects.
The mission that Mark got himself into was one that NASA had promised would take only five years. And he knew that NASA broke no promises. They were the best and the brightest minds of the planet, and if nobody could do it, they could.
He continued to hum along with his childhood favorite as he reveled in his misplaced confidence some more.
Molly had just thrown a fit and stormed into their room, slamming the door behind her. Inside, Mark could hear sounds of his wife bawling almost hysterically. Mark crept open the door.
“Hon,” Mark paused and collected his thoughts carefully. “It really is only five years.” He hoped this thought would make her feel better.
“Five years? You’re expecting me to live alone with our daughter for five years?” Molly screamed at him hysterically. “I don’t know why you didn’t even consider consulting your wife before making this decision! Have you even given thought to the little one?” She quickly put her hand on her enlarged womb where Mark’s firstborn was sitting in, listening to their fight.
“But hon, they really did promise me five years. Five years including the journey there and back. And then I’ll – ” He trailed off. Molly had raised a hand in objection.
“Leave. I don’t want to see you right now,” Molly ordered with a broken voice.
Mark did not object. He knew he could not make things better by saying anything more. He took the most personal of belongings, exited the room and closed the door. Inside the room, more bawling and sobbing followed.
He really needed a drink.
The corn plants waved in the wind as Mark began his routinely inspection of his plants. He had been perfecting his harvests, and had gotten healthier and healthier corn plants each time.
“My, my what a healthy bunch you guys are,” he spoke to his shadow.
His five year term had passed two years and twenty-six days ago. He kept count on the wall of his quarters, writing down every single day that had passed. Next to it lay a picture of his wife, pregnant with their unborn firstborn. Each time he wrote a new number on the board, he touched his only memory of his family – it was as if he could feel the warmth of his wife on his skin.
He knew she probably hated him right now. For leaving everything behind. For leaving Ashley behind. For, in her words, a stupid planet.
But even his wife’s hatred wouldn’t be as strong and pointed as the contempt Mark had for NASA. At first he had written it off as political issues – perhaps a filibuster in Congress had stopped funding for NASA for a bit and interfered with sending another mission to retrieve him. Another thought was simply the dangers of the mission – that others had died in the name of retrieving a fellow scientist. But as more and more days passed the five-year mark, Mark had simply accepted that he was marooned on the planet.
And that pissed Mark off. A lot.
As he walked back to his quarters, he began daydreaming about life on Earth. He wondered how his now six-year-old daughter was like, wondered what her first word was, what she liked to eat and when she took her first step. He wondered what his mother would say about him – was he just a father who was devoted to his work or would he be the family burden? Would his little girl have liked him or her mother more?
Then it occurred to Mark that he may never find out.
Mark was just getting ready to put on his suit when several of the ground staff brought him a guest.
Molly was wearing her favorite magenta dress – he had given her this on their first anniversary. He felt like he was the one who should have spoken first but his effort to compile the correct phrases came to no avail.
“Look, Mark,” Molly said, it was the first time in a while that Mark had seen her calm. “I’m sorry. For throwing a fit. For everything. I know you’ve built your life to this and I guess I just wasn’t prepared for what I had already known would come one day.” Mark looked at her, still not knowing what to say.
“I just want to tell you that I meant what I said when we got married,” Molly continued. “I don’t hate you, even if it seems that way sometimes. I’m just frustrated that our little girl won’t be able to see her dad until she’s five. And that I probably wont’ get much help changing her diapers in the middle of the night.” Molly let out a soft laugh. Mark smiled back.
“And look, if you’re going to be gone for this long, I think we should come up with a name,” Molly suggested. “I’ve already got a couple of thoughts on that – ”
“Ashley,” Mark interjected. “I know you’ve always wanted Ashley.”
Molly smiled. Her man really did know her well. They embraced one last time before Molly was escorted into the visitors room to view Mark’s launch from the command center.
It was on day three thousand one hundred and two, when Mark woke up to the sounds of voices calling out.
Startled, he nearly fell out of his bed. He crawled briskly to his door and grabbed his hand-made spear. Unwanted intruders had identified his home as a good place of lodging, but Mark was having none of it.
Mark opened his door, two hands grasping his spear and slowly stepped out. The voices were faint but they were in his vicinity.
Mark took another two cautious steps forward. He was almost squatting now, ready to pounce on whatever came his way.
“Mark? Mark Travis?” The duo of voices called out. Their volume intensifying as they approached from a distance.
It took Mark a little bit of time to register exactly what they said. But when he understood them, he realized and hollered at himself, “English! It’s in English!” The voices rushed over and found the man kneeling, three years unshaven, bawling at the sight of two creatures that were of his own species.
“It’s okay, Mark, we’ve got you,” the first one said. The second one moved on forward and helped Mark up. “It’s alright, buddy, we’re here to take you home.”
The two figures waited for half a day as Mark grabbed the most personal of his belongings. As he left the home he had lived in for eight and a half years, he felt giddy in delight on the thought of seeing his wife, now forty, and his baby girl, now nine. A part of him worried that she ended up hating him, but he didn’t care so much. He was going back to Earth, for heaven’s sakes! He was rescued from his marooning and would now be able to reunite with his family and retire in the peaceful and pleasant confines of a small suburban town.
As he boarded the two people’s craft and climbed into the cryochamber, he muttered, “I bet Director James would have missed me.”
“Yes, yes, now please take some rest. It will be a bit of a rough ride,” the first of the men said.
As Mark closed his eyes, he thought he heard the second of the two men ask, “wait, who’s Director James?”
But before he could remember to ask any follow-up questions, he was put to sleep in his space travel bed.
Mark woke up to music he hadn’t played in years.
“…And I think it’s gonna be a long long time, ’till touchdown brings me ’round again to find; I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh, no, no, no; I’m a rocket man, rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone…”
Looking up, Mark saw streaks of sky blue out his window. He recognized clouds that he had not seen in a long time. His eyes were transfixed at the familiar colors that he had yearned to see all these yeras, and barely noticed the small thud of the craft that signified their landing.
“Good morning, Mark, glad to know you’re awake,” the first of the two men said. “Our names are Ashton and Evgeny, and we are so happy to have been able to be of your rescue.”
Mark gave them a little nod and said, “thank you so much.” Mark sat up from his cryochamber, toweled himself off and stood in front of the door, eagerly awaiting his first steps back onto familiar soil.
The two astronauts opened the hatch. The light outside was bright, brighter than he’d seen in nearly a decade. The sun on the small planet he was marooned on only had about thirty percent of the luminosity than that of the Sun of Earth’s Solar System, and so his eyes needed a bit of time to adjust.
“Here,” Evgeny said, handing him a pair of sunglasses.
The light dimmed once he had put his glasses on. He expected Molly would be extremely excited to see him – something in his gut just told him that his wife was never really mad at him. He proceeded to descend down the craft’s stairs and onto soil. He relished his first step back onto Earth – nine-point-eight-one meters per second squared, he thought. Beautiful.
As he walked from the landing pad to the hangar, his euphoria and glee was abruptly halted by a surge of cognitive thought. Wait, we have rockets that can land vertically?
He dismissed this thought when he saw that a woman was waiting for him at the hangar. In the woman’s hand was another palm – the hand of a little girl. The girl’s height looked like she was eight from afar. That’s my daughter, he thought as he began running toward the woman and the child. But as Mark’s vision became clearer with decreasing distance to his family, his footsteps slowly ground to a halt.
This woman’s face looked familiar, perhaps he had seen her somewhere before, but even after years of changes, he knew that this woman was not his wife. This was not Molly.
And it’s at this point that I must point out to you, reader, that this story, to most people, would almost qualify as a tragedy.
You see, time is constant in the universe, but time is relative. There are things that can bend and change your experience of time as you travel through entities like wormholes or if you travel fast enough and close enough to light speed.
And in some cases, travelling through strong gravitational fields would greatly slow down your experience of time. With the right circumstances, a year spent in locations of stronger gravitational strength could mean a decade may have passed back on Earth.
It’s a painful cost to travelling through some space phenomena. And Mark has just begun to experience this pain.
“Hi,” the woman spoke nervously.
“Who are you?” Mark responded, coldly. The woman looked startled at Mark’s aggressiveness.
“My name,” the woman paused to collect her nervousness. “My name is Emma. Emma Travis.”
Mark looked confused. He had no relatives named Emma.
“And this,” Emma gestured to her girl. “This is your great-great-granddaughter. Charlotte.”
Mark almost fainted.
“So what year is it?” Mark demanded to know. Emma and Charlotte were escorted to the visitor’s area
“It’s been eighty-five years since you’ve left. So, if you do the math, the year is 2105. As you’ve probably been able to deduce, we’ve expanded our space travel abilities a while back,” the short scientist said, adjusting his glasses.
“And you people didn’t even consider coming to get me?” Mark looked at the current director of NASA, Director Adams.
“Well, the budgeting committee seemed to take more interest towards space travel and commercialization of said technology. So by the time we finished those, we ran out – ” The director was cut off abruptly by Mark kicking one of the chairs in the room.
Mark produced a few more martial arts-esque moves before attempting to calm himself down. He was literally marooned on a planet that nobody remembered.
“Alright,” Mark said defiantly. “So what should I learn about the year 2105?”
“Oh we’ve got lots to catch you up on,” the scientist said with a grin.
Three months of “rehabilitation training” followed for Mark. The President came and visited him, giving him the almost sarcastic “youngest-looking oldest man alive” award. He was, after all, a hundred and twenty years old, but of course could pass for a forty year-old.
It took him a little while before he reconnected with Emma and Charlotte. He wasn’t quite ready to come to terms with all of this – the fact that he was in a strange world with strange things and strange people. Heck, they gave up calling this place Earth and named it Terra. What a dumb idea.
With Emma, Mark visited Molly and Ashley. They were close – he could tell as they were buried next to each other. He knelt down, touching the tombstone with Molly’s name on it and sighed. Emma knew it was time to give Mark some space and walked to a distance.
Mark knelt in front of the two tombstones and began his introduction by weeping. He wept until his eyes were red and swollen, and then began to tell them about his journey into the unknown.
“What fools these mortals be……they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, – time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.” – Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 1: On Saving Time.