Among the Stars
by Mary Johnson
The first thing she saw was a ceiling. It was gray, so pale it was almost white, and seemed to be made of metal. There was something hard under her body, and a light blue sheet over her. She heard the hiss and murmur of machinery.
She blinked and swallowed. Her mouth felt dry; so did her eyes. She swallowed again and said, “Arnold? Is anyone there?”
A tall man smiled down at her. “Doctor Singh? She’s awake,” he said.
Then a woman’s face appeared, dark like the man’s. Both wore blue caps and coats. “How are you feeling?” the woman asked. She had a lilting accent.
“Fine. I’m fine. Is Arnold there?”
“Who is Arnold?”
“My husband. Arnold’s my husband. Am I out of surgery?”
“No.” The woman’s voice was soothing. “You did not need surgery. We simply gave you an injection.”
“I don’t remember. I don’t remember that. The doctor said it was inoperable, but Arnold said there had to be something they could do. Where is he?”
The doctor hushed her. “Don’t think of these things. You’re doing very well. Are you hungry?”
She thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No, but I’m thirsty. May I have some water?”
“Of course.” The man appeared with a small clear cup. “Can you sit up? We’ll raise the bed.”
An engine hummed, and the bed pushed at her till she was half-sitting. The man held the cup to her lips, and she drank eagerly. “Would you like more?” he murmured, and she nodded. Another cup appeared at her lips, and she swallowed the water. “Good. You’re still not hungry?”
“Good. The doctor says you should not try to eat. We will try that when you wake again.”
“Where’s Arnold?” she mumbled.
Where am I, she thought. But there was no answer.
The dark man and woman were standing next to her when she woke again. “Let’s get you on your feet,” the woman said. “I’d like to see you walk a bit.” Once again, she heard a faint hum from the bed, and found herself sitting up. “We’ll help you. We don’t expect you to take more than a few steps. Then you can rest. Can you swing your legs over the side of the bed?”
She tried to obey. Her legs felt like sticks of wood, as though they didn’t belong to her, but she was able to move them. The man stood at her side to support her. She stood. “It feels like pins and needles!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know if I can move.”
“The pins and needles are a good sign. We’ve been moving your legs for you since we treated your tumor, but that shows you can feel them. There is no nerve damage. Can you walk?”
Obediently, she slid one foot forward, then the other. “Try to lift them,” the man murmured in her ear, so she tried. She made it to the door of her room. By then, her legs felt heavy and she was strangely breathless.
“Good! That’s very good. We are going to continue with passive therapy twice a day, and we want you to keep walking, a little further each time.”
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “Where’s Arnold?”
“You asked that before. You said Arnold was your husband. Can you remember his full name?”
“Of course! Arnold Heller. Haven’t you heard of him?”
The doctor shook her head. “I’m afraid not. But we will certainly search for information about your family. The more you can tell us, the easier that will be. Please don’t worry. Try to rest now.”
How could she rest when she was so worried? But her body seemed very weak and tired, and when she wasn’t lying on her back, she was doing some sort of physical therapy or test. Always, there were the metal walls and floor and ceiling. Always, there was the faint hum of machinery. Always, there were questions, hers and theirs. Sometimes the questions were spoken.
“Your husband was Arnold Heller? Did you have other family?”
Did? What was with the past tense?
“Yes, of course! We have children. Arnie’s three, and Michelle is just one. Where are they? Where are my babies?”
“We’ll try to find out,” the nurse said, his voice soothing. “You’ve been asleep for a very long time.”
“We’ll try to find out,” he repeated. She stared. Why did he look so solemn, and why couldn’t he just answer her? But before she could ask another question, he asked, “Can you remember your name?”
“My name? P-Pearl. Pearl Heller.”
“Did you have a different name before you married?”
At that, she hesitated. All the other questions had been easy: she was American, she was twenty-eight years old, her parents were dead, and her husband was Arnold Heller. She’d been a daughter, a wife, a mother. But who was she? After a long moment, it came to her. “Fletcher. Pearl Fletcher. How long have I been asleep?”
“We don’t know yet. We’ll try to find out.”
It was strange that she was so tired if she’d been asleep for days or months. The next time they took her for a walk, she managed to ask some questions. “Where am I?” she said to the nurse walking beside her. “And what’s your name again?”
The nurse looked grave. “My name is Marcus Santos. You can just call me Marcus.”
“Thank you. But where am I?”
“Dr. Singh and the captain will talk to you when we get back to sick bay.”
“Sick bay? Are we on a ship?”
Marcus nodded. “We are aboard the Scholastica. We’re a ship of exploration and discovery.”
“Oh.” It must be a very big ship, Pearl thought. It traveled so smoothly; she couldn’t feel the ocean waves at all. “When will we come to land?” she asked.
“Not till next month. Here we are.”
The doctor was waiting for her, along with a tall woman with broad shoulders, full lips, and tightly curling hair cut close to her head. She was brown-skinned, like Marcus and Dr. Singh, but then, Pearl had noticed that most of the people on this ship were various shades of brown. The strange woman clearly wasn’t a doctor or nurse, because she wasn’t wearing blue. Instead, she had a lovely red scarf draped over one shoulder.
Both women stood up when Pearl came into the room. “Ms. Heller,” the doctor said, “can you tell me what year it is?”
“Of course. It’s 2017.”
“I see. Will you sit down, please?”
Pearl obeyed, and the doctor poured water into a glass, staring at her gravely. The tall woman said, “I am Captain Sands.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Pearl whispered, and held out her hand. After a pause, the captain took it and shook it. Then she licked her lips and continued, “The year is 2517. You are aboard a spaceship. We discovered you floating in space in a cryogenic capsule.”
“A cryogenic capsule. You had been frozen.”
“No. Oh, no,” Pearl said, shaking her head. “I was going in for surgery. The first two doctors said the tumor was inoperable, but Arnold said we’d get a third opinion. He said,” her voice dropped. “He said he wouldn’t let me die.”
“Did he?” The captain had a deep, warm voice, like velvet. “Well, you’re alive now.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know that.” Pearl could hear her own voice rising. “If I’m alive, where’s my husband? Where are my children?”
The doctor stood and pressed the glass of water into Pearl’s hand, saying, “Drink this, please.”
In the past year, Pearl had grown accustomed to obeying doctors. Before that, she’d done what Arnold had wanted, and before that, she’d obeyed her parents. She took the glass and sipped from it. Her hand was shaking, and the water tasted a little too sweet. “Is there something in here?” she asked.
“Just a mild relaxant. Please drink it.”
“No.” To her own shock, Pearl snapped her wrist so the water went splashing out of the glass toward the doctor. But she had already taken a couple of swallows. She could feel her muscles softening. She sobbed aloud, just once, and asked again, “Where are my children? Where are they?” The glass slipped out of her hand and bounced on the carpeted floor. Then she saw the captain shaking her head at the doctor. Next came a soft hissing sound and darkness.
Both women were by her bedside when she woke again, along with the nurse, Marcus. “Good morning, Pearl. Do you remember our last conversation?” the captain said.
“Yes.” Pearl turned her head away and closed her eyes.
“Can you sit up?” This time it was the doctor who spoke.
“I have a headache,” Pearl mumbled, but she sat.
“I think we may have some good news for you,” the captain said. “We began researching your family history, and it seems your son and daughter both married. You have descendants on Mars colony.”
“Mars. Why should they care about me?” Pearl’s voice was flat. What she meant, but couldn’t manage to say, was, why should I care about them? “They don’t know me. They don’t know my children. Everyone I ever knew is dead.”
“We can get in touch with them, if you like. Please think about it.”
She did think about it in the days that followed, while she worked at her physical therapy and all the other tasks the doctor wanted her to do. The only thought that came to her, over and over, was the one she’d spoken aloud: her children were dead. She could not stop mourning them.
Little Arnie had just entered the nuts-about-dinosaurs stage. He loved going to the natural history museum and pointing out everything there to anyone who would listen. She could hear him saying, “Look, Mommy, that’s a ‘ceraptops. He used to fight with T Rex!”
“T Rex! He ate him!”
Pearl smiled. “Are you sure? He doesn’t look like anyone ate him.”
“Yes! T Rex always wins.”
“So who’s your favorite dino?”
“T Rex! Oh, look, that’s a terasaur!” He was too little to pronounce all the difficult names, but he already knew everything about dinosaurs. He’d tell the whole museum all about the lives and habits of the flying monsters, while Michelle gurgled and waved at her brother from her stroller. Such bright, happy children.
And now they were dead. Dead and buried and turned to dust. She would never see them again.
She kept thinking of Arnold, too. He’d loved science fiction. On the shows he watched, starship crews had uniforms and ranks and strict schedules. The Scholastica wasn’t like that. It was like nothing she’d ever imagined. Here, people moved to a soft sound of bells, and there were snatches of song and laughter. Of course, the doctors and nurses had their blue coats and caps, but otherwise, there was no uniform, except that everyone wore black shirts and skirts or leggings or trousers. They had soft black shoes or slippers or sandals; some went barefoot. The only mark of rank was a long, bright square of cloth. Some were red, others yellow or green or blue. People wore their scarves differently, tied at the neck and flowing down their backs, or over one shoulder, or round their waists as a sort of skirt. They had one knot, or two, or three. Marcus, like some of the men and women, wore his scarf as a sort of sarong, tied round his chest and falling to just above his knees.
He took her on a tour of the ship when she was strong enough, showing her the library, the gymnasiums, the cafes. “And this is my favorite place. Our oxygen well. It’s right in the center of the ship, and anyone can come here when they’re off duty,” he said, walking through a double door. Pearl gasped as the warmth and humidity hit her. She was in a greenhouse. A palm tree rose toward the ceiling in front of her, and there were bright purple and yellow flowers everywhere. It was lovely, she had to admit, but she didn’t feel drawn to go back when she was pronounced fit to walk around the ship on her own.
No, the place that drew her was a common room with a view of the stars. You could stare out the small, oval portholes and watch them streaming by in streaks of red and blue and white and gold. The stars reminded her of her husband.
He’d been more than twenty years older than she, and he sometimes talked about his death. “I’ll be up there,” he’d told her, peering through his telescope. “Take a look! I’ll be right up there among the stars and you’ll always be able to see me.” She smiled, because that was what he seemed to want her to do. “I’ll look for you,” she promised. “But that won’t be for a long time. Not for years and years. I don’t want you to die!”
“Hey, sweetie,” Arnold hugged her from behind. “I bet, years from now, we won’t have to die. Just think of the progress we’ve made in the past century alone! If I get cancer or something like that, I’m going to get frozen. They can thaw me out when they have a cure.”
“Ugh!” Pearl said. She couldn’t see that being frozen was any better than being dead. “Don’t talk like that! You’re not going to get cancer.”
She’d been right. Arnold hadn’t gotten cancer. She had. Inoperable cancer of the brain. And she’d been frozen. Had he done it, too? Was his body, still encased in ice, floating somewhere out there among the stars?
It might be. She remembered now how they’d gone to his lawyer together and signed living wills. It seemed like a good thing at the time. “This way we’ll be able to decide for each other if either of us gets very sick.”
“But you won’t get very sick. I know I won’t! Not any time soon,” Pearl said.
“Sure, of course not! You’re young and healthy, and I try to be. But you never know. Remember, sweetheart, if I ever get too sick for them to operate, I want the cryogenic option. I’ve written it down. I want that for you, as well. We can both live in a glorious future!”
“What does that mean?” Pearl thought their future, watching the children grow up, would be glorious enough. She didn’t want more. But Arnold was a dreamer. That was one of the things she loved him for, after all. So she didn’t argue very hard. She signed the form.
Now she wished she hadn’t. It just wasn’t right, this cryogenic option.
That was what she thought of when she stood at the porthole in the center of the common room and stared at the rainbows of stars flashing by. She was in outer space, far beyond her own solar system, and her babies were dead. Her husband was dead. Why was she alive? She spoke the thought aloud: “I should be dead.”
A voice spoke behind her. “Your life is a gift. You may not throw that gift back in the giver’s face.”
Pearl jumped. She’d thought herself alone, but the doctor had come up behind her. Pearl felt herself shaking. Was she afraid? No, she realized with something like surprise. She was angry. “I didn’t want this!” she shouted. “No one asked me if I wanted this! You should have left me alone!” Pearl swung an awkward slap at the doctor, who caught her wrist and held it. “You should have let me die! I’d rather be dead! Let me go!”
Doctor Singh dropped her wrist. “I must defend myself if you hit me again. It’s all right to be angry. I understand. But don’t hit me again.”
“I’m sorry,” Pearl gasped. “But I–”
“You just want to hit someone? Who are you angry with?”
“I–you! I’m angry at you! You should have left me alone!”
“All right. I understand,” the doctor repeated.
“No. You don’t. You can’t. You can’t possibly understand. Leave me alone!” Pearl whirled away and stared out the porthole. The stars blurred and streaked into swirling lines. She heard quiet footsteps, then silence. Then the sound of the door sliding open. “Miz. Fletcher? May I speak with you?”
Pearl kept staring out at the stars. “It’s Mrs. I’m Mrs. Heller.”
“I apologize. We keep our own names when we marry.”
“We don’t. I didn’t. What do you want?” Pearl turned. The captain stood just within the doorway, staring at her gravely.
“Doctor Singh is deeply concerned about you,” the captain said.
“Well, good for her. Let her be concerned. She should have left me alone. Why didn’t you leave me alone?”
The captain took a deep breath and crossed the room to stand next to Pearl. For a moment, she looked out at the stars. Without turning, she said, “Let me try to explain. We are a ship of exploration and discovery. When we saw your capsule, we didn’t know what it was. We brought it aboard to find out. When we saw it contained a human being, and that she might be alive, we naturally tried to rescue you. Life is a great gift; it’s precious. We are bound to try to serve life. Had we known your wishes, we might have left you alone. But we didn’t know.”
“Okay. You do now. Can’t that doctor give me an injection or something?”
“Let me be clear. You are asking if Doctor Singh will kill you.” Pearl was silent. She hadn’t actually thought of it that way. “She is a doctor. She’s taken the Hippocratic oath. She will not kill a healthy patient,” the captain said.
“But my babies are dead. They’re dead! Why am I alive?” To her shock, Pearl began wailing aloud. Ugly, loud sobs came up from her gut and shook her whole body. Captain Sands embraced her, and Pearl clung to the older woman as she might have clung to a tree in a flood. The captain stroked her the way she used to stroke little Arnie after one of his tantrums when he was overtired. Pearl sobbed and sobbed.
“That’s good. That’s good. Let it all out,” the captain said. Pearl leaned on the taller woman. She wasn’t sure she could stand without the captain’s support. “It’s hard. I know. It’s hard to lose someone you love,” the captain whispered in her ear.
At last, Pearl managed to stand on her own. She wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry. I got your beautiful scarf all wet.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. It’s only a scarf. You’re a human being. You good now?”
“I think so.” Pearl wasn’t sure; she wasn’t sure what “good” even meant in this new world. After a moment, she asked the captain, “Do you have children?”
“Two. A boy and a girl, like you. But they’re grown now, off studying. My boy wants to be a monk, but I think he’ll change his mind. I can’t see him as a monk.” The captain looked straight into Pearl’s face. “I know it’s the wrong way round. It’s hard. But we all lose our children someday.”
“When you went in for surgery, didn’t you think you might die?”
Pearl paused. “Yes. I did. I was afraid I might never see Arnie and Michelle again. But that’s different.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Okay. I can see that. I’d hate it if my son and daughter died before me.” The captain sighed. For a moment, she stood next to Pearl, staring out at the stars. Then she said, “We’ll be entering the solar system within seven more solar days. We were on our way back when we found you. We’ll be stopping at Europa colony and Mars colony before we get to Terra. Have you thought about what you’ll do?”
Pearl shook her head.
“All right,” Captain Sands said, and laid one hand on Pearl’s shoulder. “You’ve got time. One thing I wanted to tell you. You’ve got a great-great-great-great granddaughter on Mars colony. She’s a grandmother now herself, and she’d love to see you. Her name is Michelle.”
“Michelle,” Pearl said softly. And then she was in tears again, but this time they were silent and peaceful tears. She let them run down her face and stared out at the kaleidoscope of stars. A bell chimed. When she dried her eyes and turned round, the captain was gone.
Nine days later, the Scholastica stopped at Europa colony. Pearl had been thinking hard. What would it be like if she were told she could meet an ancestor of hers from the 16th century? What on earth could they even talk about? “I don’t know what I can do for her,” she murmured aloud. She was in the sickbay, being checked after more physical therapy.
“Who?” Dr. Singh asked.
“This woman, Michelle. She doesn’t know me.”
“But she wants to know you. Isn’t that right?”
But what do I want? Pearl thought to herself. All her life, she’d done what other people had expected of her. Now she was alone. What did she want?
“You said you didn’t know what you could do for Michelle Forrest. Maybe you don’t have to do anything for her. Maybe she wants to do something for you.”
Pearl didn’t answer. “Right. You’re doing very well; pulse and blood pressure normal. You’re free to go,” Dr. Singh said, and Pearl slid off the examining table and walked back to the common room with the view of the stars.
Mars colony. She thought of that when she looked out the central porthole. She thought of the doctor’s words. Wouldn’t she have enjoyed showing her life to her 16th century ancestress? TV and handheld telephones, hot showers, the children playing on their iPads, cars and trains and everything else that was so familiar to her, but that would have seemed like marvels to a woman from five hundred years in the past? She was sure she would.
But who was she, Pearl Fletcher Heller? She’d always defined herself by her family. She had been a daughter, a wife, a mother. Now she was none of those things. Who was she, herself?
She walked back to the infirmary and said to Dr. Singh, “May I speak to the captain, please?”
“Yes, of course.” The doctor pressed a button. A moment later, there was a chime, and the door slid open. Captain Sands said, “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes.” Pearl licked her lips, which had gone very dry. After a long pause, she said, “I wondered–I wanted to ask. Do you think my husband could be out there? Floating in space, the way I was?”
“And my children?”
The captain said nothing, merely shaking her head.
“I think I want–I want to know. To find out what happened to them.”
“We can help you look for records. There would be documents.”
Pearl sighed. “Okay. Good. I’d like to do that. But first, I think I’d like to go to Mars.”
“You’re quite sure?” The captain looked at her gravely.
“Of course not. How can I be sure of anything? But this woman wants to meet me. That’s a place to start, isn’t it?”
Captain Sands inclined her head. “Yes. I think you’re right. It is a place to start.
The captain, Dr. Singh, and Marcus all embraced her when she prepared to board the shuttle for Mars colony. “We’ll be back here in a month’s time,” Captain Sands told her. “If you wish, you can board again and journey with us. You will always have a home here.”
“I will do what I can to find out what happened to your husband and children. Michelle Forrest can also help you research. “Doctor Singh added, “We will see you soon. Be patient with yourself. You’ve been very brave.”
Brave? She’d never thought of herself as brave.
“Vaya con Dios,” Marcus said when he hugged her. Go with God. She wasn’t so sure she believed in God, but she appreciated his good wishes. For the first time, it occurred to her that he was handsome and kind. Would he miss her when she got on that shuttle?
She would miss him. She’d miss all of them. The Scholastica had begun to feel like home, but she wasn’t actually part of the crew. She needed to find a life. Maybe she would find it on Mars colony.
She squared her shoulders and walked through the hatchway into the shuttle.
# # #
Mary Johnson will always be grateful to her family for nurturing her love of story. Her father read her Lewis and Tolkien, her mother introduced her to the Greek myths, and she played endless games of make-believe with her sisters and brother. Her sisters are still among her first and best readers. Mary’s been published in “Mythic Circle”, in the “Westchester Review”, and now, for the second time, in Sick Lit. You can find some of her other writing at her author page, where she welcomes comments and discussion. Visit her online at http://mjohnsonstories.net/, or at http://maryj59.wordpress.com/