Wendy Nagumo beat all the odds to be the first woman to travel to Mars. Thirty years later, she's battling an enemy she can not overcome. Terminal cancer may be eating away at her body, but she's determined to make one last dangerous journey to the Moon to see her new granddaughter.
For years, Tycho City and Clavius Station have sought independence from China through peaceful means, but when separatists blow a hole in the pressure dome that protects Tycho City, things get out of control. Wendy must elude the police, revolutionaries, and Chinese mafia if she's to make it out of Tycho City and get to Clavius Station in time to meet her granddaughter before the cancer takes its toll. With all shuttle flights in and out of Clavius shut down, the only way there is a treacherous overland route that passes through the badlands, a lawless region frequented by outlaws and thieves. Luckily, she meets Tom, an engaging Japanese-American with a heart of gold and a way of solving problems that's almost too good to be true.
Wendy Nagumo adjusted the magnification on the radar telescope for a better look at the landing site inside the Melas Chasma, the deepest region of the Valles Marineris, the equatorial rift that slashed across the face of Mars for over 4,000 kilometers, and tried to contain her excitement. Ever since the Mars Discoverer began orbiting Mars five days before, she’d been glued to the telescope, straining to see new details of the landing site. The anticipation was killing her, driven as it was by an irresistible attraction to the red planet.
“Any sign of the sand storm?” said Yang Zintao, commander of the Mars Discoverer.
“Not in the northern hemisphere. I think we’re alright as long as the storm stays put.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Yang said. “I didn’t come all this way to sit in orbit. He narrowed one eye and added, “Although I’m sure we could find something to amuse ourselves while waiting for the weather on Mars to improve.”
Wendy blushed. Her romance with Yang was all over the tabloids, thanks to Yang and his big mouth. Fortunately the disclosure came when the Mars Discoverer was already halfway to the red planet. Had word leaked out before the launch, she was sure she would have been scrubbed from the mission. The Joint Mission Directorate wanted the first United States-China mission to go smoothly, in space and in the media.
Yang’s playful mood passed quickly. His thoughts were on the landing she suspected.
“How much longer until the next aerobrake burn?” he asked.
“About twenty five minutes,” replied Colin McGregor, combing his fingers through his unruly mop of red hair. After initially inserting itself into an elliptical orbit around Mars, the ship needed to slow down, shed kinetic energy, until it was in the low, near-circular orbit required for landing. Known as “aerobraking,” the process limited the use of precious fuel to small adjustments after each pass.
“Increase the delta,” ordered Yang.
“That will increase the thermal load on the hull. It’s already at 95% capacity,” said Colin.
Yang grew visibly impatient. “The longer we wait the more likely the sand storm will move north and mess up our landing.”
Wendy put a hand on his shoulder. “Another day or two in orbit isn’t going to kill the mission.” Wise words, but her heart was not in them. She wanted to get on with the landing as badly as Yang.
“At this rate we’ll have hardly any time for experiments.” It had been 191 Earth days since the Mars Discoverer left lunar orbit. Five of those had been spent aerobraking. What good was the new ion-electric drive if all the time saved was squandered resetting the orbit?
Colin handed Yang the new calculations. “If we increase the delta by 13% we ought to be in the correct orbit by 1600 tomorrow.”
“What’s the thermal impact?” Yang said.
“The hull will be at 115% rated capacity.”
“But only around periapsis. How long is that?”
“About three hours.”
“Any reason to think it isn’t up to it?”
Colin shrugged. “No.”
Yang appeared satisfied. “Alright, increase the delta by 13%.”
On the next pass, the Mars Discoverer sliced deeper into the Martian atmosphere. Wendy watched with growing concern as the external temperature readings climbed rapidly, the result of increased frictional heating from the thicker atmosphere. Several of the instruments were soon at or near maximum.
“The thermal load is higher than we thought,” she concluded.
The words hadn't left her lips for more than a second when the ship began to vibrate. Slightly at first, but as it continued the tremor became a shudder. From the pilot’s seat, Colin sounded worried. “We're running into some sort or turbulence that is driving us deeper into the atmosphere than we’d intended.”
The thermal load continued to increase, and soon the status board looked like a Christmas tree. Several systems showed red – propulsion, communications, and most important of all, life support. “We can’t go any deeper,” she cried. “We’re starting to lose key systems.”
Aerobaking was supposed to be a gentle process for dissipating kinetic energy, one within the inherent structural capabilities of the spacecraft, without the aid of special thermal shields. This wasn’t it.
As the Mars Discoverer's shaking increased Wendy feared it was nearing its limit. If that happened...
“Alright, take us up, Colin,” Yang barked.
Colin nodded and fired a long burst from the rear maneuvering thrusters.
The shudder intensified.
Suddenly, a high-pitched shriek filled the cabin.
“Depressurization!” blared the cabin alarm.
Wendy unstrapped herself while her eyes darted wildly around the cabin searching for the location of the leak.
Hinping Wan, the fourth member of the crew, pushed out of the co-pilot’s seat right behind her. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a spot high up on the rear bulkhead.
Wendy looked in that direction and quickly spotted the rapidly growing trail of dust, bits of plastic and condensed water vapor being sucked toward the leak with ever increasing speed. Taking the direct route afforded by the zero-g conditions, she grabbed the patch kit and then launched herself toward the spot where the trail appeared to end. As she neared it she saw there were actually two punctures about an inch apart. A small crack connected them.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “There’s a hair line crack here.” If left unchecked everyone onboard knew the crack could lead to a catastrophic hull failure. A simple sealer patch wouldn't be strong enough. She’d have to apply plasti-steel.
“Hurry up!” barked Yang. He sounded worried, and for good reason. The hull was under extraordinary stress. As if to highlight his anxiety, a groan came from somewhere aft. It was the ship’s way of saying enough was enough.
Working as quickly as she could, she applied the red plasti-steel, counted to sixty to give it time to set, and then applied a heavy-duty patch. It would take another minute for the “goop,” as she called it, to bond with the patch. Without any warning, the ship lurched violently and the seal gave way. The shriek turned into a roar.
With her ears screaming in pain from the sudden drop in cabin pressure, she yelled, “Get me a reinforcement plate!” Then she applied more goop and slapped another patch over the hole, pressing down on it as hard as she could. The roar withered into a pronounced hiss. Maintaining pressure on the patch, however, was next to impossible in zero gravity. She quickly found herself upside down, slowly losing her grip on the patch. As she did, the hiss of escaping air gradually intensified, until her hand slipped off the patch altogether.
Then the roar returned almost immediately.
Her growing lightheadedness told her the cabin air had dropped to dangerously low levels. It would not be long before everyone passed out. Where the hell was Hinping? Fumbling to get her hand back on the patch, she finally managed to reapply pressure but this time no matter how hard she pressed there was no discernible effect on the leak. “I can’t hold it any longer,” she said, gritting her teeth.
“You’ve got to,” yelled Yang. “Colin and I have our hands full.”
Just then, Hinping reappeared with the reinforcement plate and a portable laser welder. “It’s about time,” she said, between breaths. Her breathing was labored, coming in shallow gasps that rasped in her throat.
Hinping nodded and fired up the welder while she held the plate in position. In the background, through the growing grey fog that shrouded her mind, she heard Yang order Colin to apply more thrust. If the ship didn’t pull out of its dive into the Martian atmosphere the leak would be the least of their problems.
“Come on, Hin, hurry” she said, her words slurred. It was quickly evident Hingping was a skilled welder. He was just too slow. At the rate he was going the hypoxia would take its toll before he finished the job. Unfortunately, her prediction proved correct.
By the time he had reached the half-way point, it was all she could do to keep her hand on the plate. At the three quarters point, her mind started to wander and she had to remind herself to stay on task. The squiggly weld line told her Hinping was struggling as well.
He blinked several times and said, “I can’t finish.”
The cabin alarm blared again. “Cabin pressure below 25% and dropping.”
“Let me finish it, “ said Colin. He pushed her aside while snatching the welder out of Hinping's hand. His words reverberated, like they’d been spoken at the other end of a long pipe. Then she passed out.
When Wendy regained consciousness, she had a splitting headache. But worse than that was her stomach. It felt like someone had sucker-punched her when she wasn't looking. The slightest movement on her part produced a wave of nausea so intense she thought she might pass out again. She looked about the cabin. The leak. The ship was in danger. Her first impulse was to jump back to work and finish the repairs she'd started.
“Wait a minute.” Her eyes darted about and she listened intently. The cabin was silent, save for the ordinary chirps and beeps emitted by electronic consoles and relays located throughout the ship. The hair-raising sound of escaping air was gone.
“You alright?” Colin asked, drifting into her field of view. A look of concern etched into his expression.
“I feel like crap,” she growled. “What happened?”
“You passed out. Fortunately, the ship pulled out of the dive just in time for me to finish the weld.”
“So we can land tomorrow?”
He laughed. “Is that all you can think about?”
“Well, for the time being you’ll have to force yourself to think about more mundane things like breathing and staying alive.”
With help from some anti-nausea meds, Wendy quickly recovered from the hypoxia and over the next few hours, she worked tirelessly with the rest of the crew to identify and repair the damage. Fortunately, the ion-electric propulsion system was unscathed. The most serious damage had occurred on the Martian Excursion Module or MEM. The thermal overload had fried the MEM’s ground proximity and sideband radars. Without them to measure the descent of the MEM to the surface, the landing would be far more treacherous.
Yang called a crew meeting to go over their options. Wendy groaned inwardly and fought back the urge to speak out against his order – decisions by committee rarely ended up well. He seemed filled with doubt.
“If this were a straight descent onto open ground I’d feel a lot better,” he said. “But we all know it’s far from that.” The Melas Chasma was eleven kilometers deep, over twice the height of Mount Everest, at the landing site.
“The valley is over two hundred kilometers wide,” said Colin. “It won’t be any different than landing inside a large crater.”
“No one has ever attempted a landing in terrain anything like this,” Yang said in his usual efficient manner. “Are you sure you can do it without the radar?”
“Absolutely. I hadn’t planned on using it much anyway.”
“What if I put together a jury-rigged range finder?” Wendy suggested. “I might be able to modify it so it gives us rates of decent and bearings.
Yang nodded his assent and then clouded over. “I can’t make this decision on my own. I have to take it to Chris Cooper at Mission Control.” It was all too apparent Yang had serious concerns. Were they enough to scrub the landing? She couldn’t tell. All she knew for certain was what she would do if the decision were hers to make – she would land.
An hour later, Yang brought them all together a second time. There was no need for him to explain why – his hushed conversations were witness to the deliberations with Chris over whether or not to attempt a landing without the MEM’s ground proximity and sideband radars. Judging from the haggard look in his eyes, Wendy had no illusions about the outcome. They’d come this far without incident, proving the feasibility of the new ion-electric drive, and the prospects for a safe return to Earth were excellent. The Mission would stand as a success on those accomplishments alone. On the other hand, a failed landing attempt would overshadow all the other accomplishments and, in all likelihood, delay further manned efforts to explore Mars for generations.
Yang cleared his throat and made eye contact with Wendy, Colin and Hinping in turn. “I know how much the landing means to each of you.” He had all the enthusiasm of a bereaved relative giving a gravesite eulogy. “The loss of the MEM’s landing radars is a serious problem.” He seemed to be searching for the right words. Just spit it out and stop beating around the bush for heaven’s sake, she thought – the landing’s been scrubbed. “After considering all the alternatives and a lot of soul searching, Chris and I have decided...” He paused. Wendy leaned forward expectantly, as did Colin and Hinping.
“The landing is a Go!” said Yang, bursting into a smile.
Wendy was about to object, then she stopped herself. Had she heard him right? “Wait. Did you say—?” She threw her arms around him tight and kissed him on the lips. The nerve endings all over her body tingled with excitement. “Not so fast,” he said with a grin. “We’ve still got some work to do.”
“I don’t care,” she said breathlessly. “We’re on our way.”
The final preparations for landing flashed by and soon it was time to board the MEM and begin the actual descent. As Wendy took her place inside the MEM, however, an odd feeling came over her – something waited for her on the planet’s surface. That of course made no sense, and even if it did in some convoluted way now was not the time to let her imagination run wild. Wendy pushed the thought aside and concentrated on the landing checklist.
The MEM separation klaxon sounded.
From the cockpit of the Mars Discoverer, Hinping activated the release mechanism. He would remain in orbit on the mother ship, while Yang, Wendy and Colin explored the planet’s surface. Once Colin tripped the failsafe actuator from the cockpit of the MEM, the Mars Lander would be free.
“Ready for separation,” said Hinping. “Have a safe journey.”
Colin flipped the actuator and said, “Separation confirmed.”
The MEM slowly fell away and for a moment she had a full view of the Mars Discoverer. Built around a truss backbone over three hundred meters long, the ship was as ungainly as she was beautiful. It resembled a dumbbell, with the three massive ion engines at the stern and a large sphere containing the bridge and living spaces at the bow. Just then she felt Yang’s hand on hers.
“I guess we’re really on our own now.”
“I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be with,” she said.
He put one arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward him. As he did, she cradled his face in her hands and kissed him.
“Alright, cut that shit out,” said Colin good-naturedly. “These are pretty tight quarters and there’s no place for me to hide.”
“Just keep your eyes on the road,” Yang teased.
The crew buckled up and got down to business when the time came to begin the re-entry and descent procedure. After a final systems check, Colin initiated the retro-burn that would slow the MEM enough to begin re-entry. Other than some minor buffeting, the descent went smoothly, nothing compared to re-entry into the Earth’s much denser atmosphere. Colin was the first to spot their destination.
“Valles Marineris dead ahead.”
“There’s the Tharsis Bulge,” said Wendy. The Valles Marineris was a tectonic crack formed as the planet’s crust rose in the Tharsis region. Traveling in an equatorial orbit from west to east, they had to fly over the Tharsis bulge and then land about 2000 kilometers to the east.
“Prepare for final descent,” Colin said. His words were clipped. The man had ice in his veins, the best pilot Wendy had ever flown with, bar none. In addition to being a great pilot, Colin was also a wonderful person, someone she respected and whose company she always enjoyed.
Wendy read off their altitude using the altimeter. Too bad the ground proximity radar was gone. This was when it was really needed. That meant the landing would be strictly manual, not that it mattered to Colin, she suspected. He preferred a manual landing over an automated one any day. But without precise altitude and velocity readings the landing was going to be more difficult that it would normally be.
Using the main engine to control the rate of descent and the thrusters to control lateral movement, Colin had the MEM in a rear first attitude. The first part of the descent felt routine, but when the MEM dropped below the level of the surrounding plains, she tensed, surprised by the abrupt sight restriction. They were inside the valley, though it felt more like a bottomless pit.
Using the jury-rigged-hand held range finder, she measured their rate of decent and lateral movement based on repeated readings of the valley wall.
“Altitude 8.5. Down 30. Lateral 5.”
Colin nudged the throttle forward.
“Altitude 7.0. Down 25. Lateral 5…Altitude 5.5. Down 25. Lateral 5.”
Colin nudged the throttle forward a bit more and touched the lateral thrusters.
“Altitude 4.5 Down 20. Lateral 2.0.”
“Fuel?” Colin asked.
No one said it, but Wendy knew they were descending too slowly. Evidently, Colin did too. He pulled the throttle back. Perhaps too much, she thought, as her stomach went weightless. They were now dropping like a rock.
Altitude 3.0. Down 35. Lateral zero.
Colin waited, his lips moving silently as he counted down the time before he had to apply full thrust. Wendy’s throat was dry but she managed to croak out the next set of estimates.
“Altitude 1.0 Down 35. Lateral 2.0.”
Colin rammed the throttle forward but the main engine did not go to full power for another agonizing second. When it finally did, Wendy thought she saw rockslides and debris. They were almost to the valley floor!
Suddenly, dust swirled around the view ports, blocking her view outside. By the time it cleared enough for her to get another glimpse of the surroundings she almost panicked.
“We’re going up!” she yelled, then glanced at the fuel gauge. It read five seconds. “We’re nearly out of fuel, Colin!”
The MEM computer confirmed the obvious in its tinny voice. “Fuel critical. Main engine about to shut down.”
“Don’t panic,” said Colin calmly. “I overshot a bit.” Without the least hint of emotion on his face he pulled back on the throttle.
The dust returned just before the main engine shut down.
“Oh shit!” she said as her stomach radioed she was in free fall again.
An instant later, the MEM rocked from side to side as each of the three landing legs touched down in quick succession.
A quick breath pushed out of him. “Well, we cut that a little close,” said Colin with a wide grin.
Wendy grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled. “That’s for being a wise ass!”
Yang, Wendy and Colin laughed until it hurt.
After a thorough check of the MEM’s systems, it was finally time to launch the reconnaissance drone, a motorized balloon that carried a video camera and instruments. Wendy’s job was to inflate the balloon and prepare the instrument package. She’d practiced the task many times in the high desert near Palmdale, California, but with a much smaller balloon. This one was ten times the volume on account of the low Martian air pressure, about one tenth of Earth’s.
“If this thing gets caught in a strong enough wind, those fans won’t be of much help,” she said. The gasbag was egg shaped, much like a conventional blimp, but it still presented a huge side profile to a lateral gust. The battery powered drive fans were oversized by Earth standards, with larger blades suited to the Martian air pressure. Even so, the fans lacked the thrust necessary to maneuver the craft under turbulent conditions. The more powerful fans necessary to handle such conditions were too heavy for the blimp’s lift capacity. It was all a trade off, she told herself, like so many other things in life.
Colin tightened the slack on several tethers as the gasbag became more buoyant. “Well, the experts think the valley will shield it from any side winds strong enough to sweep it away. Besides, even if it does blow off course, I expect we’ll still get some great videos.”
Wendy checked the harness that secured the payload to the gasbag and gave him the thumbs up sign. Then she radioed Yang inside the MEM. “There’s no sign of wind. We’re ready to launch. Is everything working on your end?”
“Affirmative,” Yang replied. He controlled the movements of the drone and monitored the video feed.
“Alright, let her go, Colin.”
The two drive fans whirred and the ungainly craft glided forward while slowly rising into the air. The gasbag rippled and lolled from side to side like a giant walrus, fighting the momentary acceleration, once the drone reached cruising speed, however, it settled down. At an altitude of thirty meters the drone leveled off and headed across the valley floor toward the bluffs at the south end of Melas Chasma. The flight plan called for it to turn east, parallel to the bluff, for two kilometers and then loop back. That way, Wendy could track it visually the entire flight.
“Looking good,” she said. The drone was right on course. Then her radio started to misbehave. It was very faint but definitely there. She thought it might be just a radio anomaly, perhaps two overlapping channel frequencies. The longer she listened, however, the more it sounded like a melody of some sort. “Radio check,” she said.
“You’re loud and clear,” said Colin.
“Don’t you hear that?”
“My suit radio must be going haywire. I’m hearing a carrier signal in the background. Are you sure you’re not hearing it?” She didn’t want to call it “music,” even though that’s what it sounded like. Colin would think she was crazy.
She set about stowing the helium canister, the regulator and the hose and tried to ignore the odd sounds. By the time she’d packed up everything, the drone was almost at the bluff. That’s when she noticed the strange music once again, only now it was louder. It had a sinewy quality that blended with a delicate melody she found quite beautiful, almost alluring. Without realizing it, she drifted with it for several minutes.
Until Yang’s voice blared over the suit radio.
He sounded alarmed. “Do you see anything odd about the drone?”
Startled, she fumbled for the laser range finder. After a few moments of awkward silence, she had the drone in sight. It had reached the bluff and was slowly turning east. “Everything looks normal. Is there something wrong?”
“Several of the environmental sensors went nuts for a second. Must have been an anomaly.”
“Anything on the video?”
“Just a rock slide.”
Had this not been the drone’s first flight she might have asked Yang to take it around for another pass. No, better to stick to the flight plan. She would take a closer look at the bluff herself.
The next day Wendy and Colin headed for the bluff in the Mars buggy, a battery powered four-wheel contraption that sported two seats and not much else. After dropping her off near the base of the rockslide he headed east in search of a way up the canyon wall that skirted the rock fall. Meanwhile, Yang guided the drone toward the location where the instruments had gone berserk the day before.
“The drone is almost in position,” Yang radioed.
Wendy glanced at the radiation sensor she carried. “Nothing unusual so far.”
“Another few seconds,” he said.
Before she could respond, the sinewy melody once again crept into her mind. Her head dropped as she focused on the rhythmic beat. Like a gentle hand that drew her gaze downward, a glint of sunlight amidst the scattered pieces of rock and sand caught her attention. It looked strangely out of place amidst a sea of red dirt and rocks that extended to the horizon. Paying no heed to the radiation sensor, she bent down for a closer look. Her pulse quickened at the sight of the crystal, the same rush of excitement she felt on the beach at the discovery of an old coin or a piece of jewelry. About the size of a small marble, it glinted in a peculiar fashion she found quite beautiful. Delighted by her find, she put the crystal in her suit pocket without another thought. Colin was too far away to see anything, and when Yang queried her later about the readings she’d taken when the drone passed overhead, she was too embarrassed to admit she’d let it slip by unnoticed because she was souvenir hunting. She never mentioned her find in any of her reports. It would become one of her most prized possessions.
And the key to the survival of the human race.
Several days later, Wendy returned with Colin to the bluff to gather samples from the rock face above the slide. She was about 30 meters above the valley floor, inching her way along a narrow shelf toward a large seam in the rock face that extended upward several hundred meters. Colin was several meters behind her, following in her footsteps. Even though the preliminary geology reports indicated the entire rock structure was unstable, she had risked the climb in order to get a better look inside the seam where there might be traces of ice inside.
Perhaps the disturbance of her passage triggered it, but the next thing she knew a cascade of gravel and sand swept her off the ledge and down onto the rocks below. She landed on her back, damaging her suit’s environmental controls, and slid head-first part way down the incline, before coming to rest in a sandy depression.
A small hiss registered in her ears, a sure sign she was losing oxygen. Wendy frantically searched for the source of the leak, but her perceptions of the world around her darkened.. Moments later, she fell unconscious, her brain starved for oxygen. In that instant she had an out of body experience.
She watched from above, detached from her body, as Colin frantically rappelled his way down the cliff face and then hurled himself down the slide to her body, nearly killing himself in the process. After reaching her, he quickly diagnosed the problem and bypassed the damaged oxygen supply. He peered at her through her helmet faceplate, consumed by anguish and fear he’d lost her. “Dear God, please let her live,” he cried. His heartfelt display of affection toward her was a surprise and very touching. What a sweet man he was.
Like a light-switch flipped to the “on” position, the scene instantly changed. She was walking along a winding path through an old growth forest of Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar. Rounding a curve in the trail, her eyes focused on a clearing ahead, lit with bright sunshine. A number of people milled about at the entrance to the clearing, well-dressed men and women in their twenties and thirties, all very fit, along with a small dog. The dog spotted her and bolted in her direction, running with a fierce abandon only a dog had toward someone it loved. It looked strangely familiar, and then she realized it was Buddy, the family dog from her childhood.
As if on cue, all eyes turned to her in perfect unison. For a brief moment their collective stare withered her, until she got close enough to recognize facial features. Her throat almost clenched shut with emotion. Though there was no possible way it could be true, her entire family was there. She immediately recognized her mother, despite the fact the woman had to be in her mid-twenties. Despite being a younger version of herself, those penetrating pale blue eyes and the way she crinkled them when she smiled were a dead giveaway. Wendy had drunk them in countless times as a child and there was no mistaking them now. This was her mother as she had been long ago, in college and at her wedding, an incredibly beautiful young woman, clearly in her prime. Shifting her gaze from face to face, the same was true of her dad, the dashing young naval officer from the wedding pictures, and all the rest.
She bent down to greet Buddy as he skidded to a stop, roughing his ears like she always had. He responded with the same playful glee he’d shown as a puppy, his tail wagging furiously. Preoccupied with the dog, she did not notice when a slight man wearing overalls and a flannel shirt appeared on the trail a few paces ahead. “Hello Wendy,” he said.
Caught off guard by his sudden appearance, she tensed before she glanced his way, not quite sure what to expect. The anxiety she experienced quickly turned to joy, however, once she realized who he was – her great grandfather, Tom Nagumo. Unlike the others in the clearing, Grandpa Tom was in his seventies, exactly as she remembered him from her visits to his farm as a little girl.
“Grandpa, I never expected to find you here. What is happening to me?”
“You died on Mars.”
“Oh God, no,” she said, struggling to comprehend the significance of his words.
“Don’t be upset, my love,” he said gently. “You’ve come too soon.”
“You said I died.”
“It is not too late for you to return, go back the way you came.”
“I don’t understand.” She glanced back at the iron gate that guarded the trail. It was open.
“You’ve been chosen.”
“To save mankind.”
Twinges of fear and self-doubt crept up her spine. Faced with the choice, she would join the people who loved her most. She was about to run to them when she heard the music – the same sinewy melody she’d heard at the bluff. It intertwined with the natural rhythms of her body to form a delicate musical fabric that resonated through her mind and spirit, gently infusing her with the strength she needed to turn away.
“The dog and I will be here when you return.”
“That could be a long time.”
“Not to worry. This place exists outside of time.”
“How could that be? Are we in another dimension?”
“Something like that. All of your questions will be answered in due course. Now you must go.”
His eyes told her it would be alright, just as they had when she was the little girl in need of reassurance. She had no idea what kind of journey she was about to begin, other than it was hers and hers alone, but she had faith – in herself and in God. That was enough, no matter what lay ahead. “Good boy,” she said, stroking Buddy’s head. Then she headed back up the trail, drawn to the gate by the irresistible pull of the music.
The next thing she remembered was Colin peering at her through her faceplate. His initial look of concern and fear turned to joy and his voice rang out on the suit intercom. “You’re back, thank God. I thought I’d lost you.” He squeezed her gloved hand and she could see tears in his eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered. The music slowly faded into the background.
The Beach House
THIRTY YEARS LATER
Wendy stared up at the paddle fan turning lazily in the humid summer air. How long had it been since she went to bed? An hour? Two? She’d not slept at all. She was too busy stewing about what to do with the time she had left. The damn cancer had turned her life to quicksand. The harder she tried to put the pieces back together, the more screwed up everything got.
She slid out of bed and sought refuge in the kitchen, taking deep breaths of the sea air wafting through the flip-open bungalow style windows. It carried the smell of cleansing rain and the promise of a brief respite from the petrochemical stench that always blanketed this part of the island during the summer. A storm was coming, gathering energy from the warm waters of the South China Sea, heralded by rising wind and a chorus of creaks and groans from the aging beach house. The sea was studded with white caps that glistened in the light from the full moon. Further out to sea, the front moved in, a curtain of blackness stretched across the horizon.
Situated on the north shore of Itu Aba, the largest of the Spratly Islands, the beach house faced neighboring Ban Than Reef, now the site of a vast forest of grimy cracking towers that made up the China Petroleum refinery. At night, periodic flares from the burn off of combustible by-products reminded her of a devil’s birthday cake, hardly the sort of image one would choose for a vacation retreat. She hated the sight and the smell of the place with equal prejudice. But most of all she hated what it stood for.
Had her life not been in shambles, Wendy would never have set foot in this place again, preferring to remember it as it was before the refinery. What she needed more was a sanctuary, a place to process the events of the past weeks, even a semi-toxic one. Fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer, she had no marketable skills, having sacrificed her career to raise a family. A cruel irony indeed. Her children were gone, and her marriage to Yang, now one of the most powerful men on the planet, was on the rocks. If that weren’t enough, Malia, her Moon-born baby granddaughter, was in danger.
Wendy was no stranger to adversity, but the past few weeks were different, a perfect shit storm, and she had begun to question her faith in God himself. Her entire world had imploded, leaving nothing but an emotional black hole that sucked the life out of her. She felt lost, abandoned, with no recourse, not even prayer. Was there no end to the sacrifices expected of her? What kind of God would reward all her sacrifices with so much heartache and pain?
Six months earlier, Wendy discovered she had cancer after she began to have sharp pains in the right side of her chest. It turned out to be a tumor on her liver the size of a lemon. Her worst fears were realized when the doctor told her the tumor was malignant and growing rapidly, populated by aggressive cancer cells that originated in her pancreas. The world’s best oncologists had no cure. They said she had a few months left to live, perhaps a year or two with radiation and chemotherapy. Determined to fight, Wendy began a series of treatments designed to shrink the tumor and arrest the spread of the cancer. When the results of the first course indicated only marginal improvement, the doctors advised her to continue, but by then she’d had enough. The side-effects of the treatments were worse than the disease. Against the wishes of Yang, she opted for quality of life and left the program.
She turned her attention to the time she had left, determined to make the most of it, and created a bucket list. Initially, the list was quite long and included diving on the Great Barrier Reef, driving a stock car on the Daytona raceway, and throwing roses from the Eiffel Tower, but as thrilling or romantic as each item appeared, her thoughts always gravitated back to Malia and returning to the Moon. In the end, her bucket list consisted of only one item–visit Malia. That meant travel to the Clavius mining settlement, a grueling trip for someone in good health, and a potentially deadly one for her. If, however, the trip gave her a chance to be with her granddaughter, even if only for a short time, it was worth the risk.
Were it not for a quirk of gravity, simply bringing Malia to her would have satisfied all concerned and saved Wendy the wear and tear of the trip. She smiled at the thought, but it soon faded. After two generations of Moon habitation, the medical community had discovered a cruel by-product of gestation and early life in one quarter Earth gravity. Moon-born children lacked the bone and circulatory physiology to withstand full Earth gravity. After the age of twelve years they could visit Earth for short periods, and then only with the aid of an exoskeleton. For a baby Malia’s age a visit to Earth was a death sentence.
Wendy leaned against the doorframe, letting the tension ebb away with each slow, deep breath. When a measure of calm finally returned, she straightened and ran her finger over the tick marks on the door jambs, the product of a ritual she had practiced each June at the beach house. She would stand the boys up in the doorway, the older boy Jin on the right and his younger brother Han on the left, and mark their heights. She’d clung to the ritual even after the boys grew older and their visits became less and less frequent. Even so, the final set of marks was now over ten years old, a relic of better days, before the refinery stole the natural beauty of her island. Now they served as her Rosetta Stone, the bridge between her jumbled memories and the threads of a coherent life story.
The threads became lifelines once the boys moved out and started their own lives, leaving behind a great void for her to fill. She became a recluse, isolated in the family’s Beijing mansion. Her celebrity status long gone, and with it any opportunity of resuming a public life, she clung to the past, reliving old memories of the boys’ childhoods through video records and artifacts. Their rooms became shrines, each one carefully preserved the exact way they had left it when they went off to college. She spent hours there, rummaging through athletic trophies, posters of rock stars, and discarded clothing, as if each item had its own story to tell, connecting her with the past, much like the marks on the kitchen door jamb. She was most comfortable at night, when the mansion was quiet, often staying up until dawn and sleeping during the day. Weeks went by without her seeing the light of day. Despite her loneliness, she did not pester the boys, even though she rarely heard from either. They were immersed in their own lives, starting careers and, in Han’s case, a family of his own. She was content with the knowledge they were successful and safe. Life had roared ahead while her eyes were riveted on the rear view mirror. All that changed with the Moon independence movement.
Wendy made herself a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table. The wicker chair creaked with every movement, and the familiar sound comforted her. A week-old copy of the Herald Tribune lay on the table next to the chair, a hand-me-down from one of the Security details. A round coffee stain adorned the front page, partially obliterating the lead story. After living among the Chinese for almost twenty-five years she could speak and understand Mandarin with a sort of situational proficiency, stock words and phrases that enabled her to get by in almost any social situation. When it came to reading the written word, she still preferred English. Glancing down, one headline grabbed her attention, twisting her stomach into a knot, just as it had the day before when she first read it. “Moon Unrest Grows.” She didn’t need to read the story again. The words were etched in her memory.
The Moon independence movement was growing stronger, fueled by growing labor unrest over working conditions in the Helium-3 mines in and around Clavius. There were reports of walkouts and wildcat strikes at several of the mines, along with death threats against company officials. Now the Confederation Council was involved. It was about to vote on a petition to grant independence to the Moon colonies at Tycho and Clavius, both of which were still claimed by China. Given the high stakes associated with future production of Helium-3, the world’s most sought after fuel for fusion reactors, special interests groups on both sides fought like hungry jackals to influence the outcome. Unfortunately, not all of them did so through peaceful means and at least one, the so-called Freedom First Coalition, made no effort to hide the fact it was prepared to use violence to achieve its goal.
The article quoted the leader of the FFC, a known terrorist named Nasif Rebah. “Freedom does not come without a price,” he declared without apology. “A few may die so the many can be free.” Wendy shuddered at the thought Han and his family lived at the Clavius mining settlement, the heart of the unrest.
The irony of the situation was the Clavius mines produced only a fraction of the Helium-3 mined on the Moon as a whole. Most of the Moon’s Helium production came from the American-controlled mines in the Shackleton crater near the lunar south pole. They harvested almost pure Helium-3 from the remains of an ancient comet. The Clavius mines, on the other hand, had to separate the precious ore from regolith and other materials found on or near the surface, a far more expensive and time consuming process. Aside from their relative inefficiencies, moreover, many of the Clavius mines were old and in need of modern equipment. For several years, China Mining Industries-Moon, otherwise known as CMIM, the owner and operator of the Clavius mines, had withheld much needed capital improvements out of concern the Confederation vote might go against China. Meanwhile, the Americans, unburdened by the unrest over independence, continued to invest heavily in their Shackleton operations, further solidifying their position as the world’s dominant supplier of Helium-3.
As she slid forward in the chair to stand, she noticed something sticking out from beneath the newspaper. Pushing the paper aside she saw it was the rosary grandpa Tom had made from scraps of wood and metal during his imprisonment at the internment camp at Manzanar, California, along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. She’d forgotten it was there.
Tom had given the rosary to her quite unexpectedly just before she left for Navy flight school. A man of deep faith, he placed the rosary in her hand and gently folded her fingers over it. Tom’s hands were calloused and rough, the hands of a blueberry farmer from Bainbridge Island Washington, but his words were those of an incredibly wise man. “I want you to have this. Sometimes believing God loves you is the most difficult act of faith.” Barely able to find words of thanks, she had accepted the rosary, knowing it was and always would be the finest gift she would ever receive.
Now it was buried under a stack of newspapers. She could not remember the last time she had held, much less used it. What had happened to her?
Throughout her professional career as a US Navy aviator, and later as an American astronaut, her Catholic faith had been at the center of her life, the source of guidance, inspiration and courage. After she married Yang, an avowed atheist, however, she found it more and more difficult to practice her faith. Despite many conversations about religion before they married, Wendy was unprepared for the effects Yang’s beliefs would have on her own faith, and those of Jin and Han. His was a non-faith, based on the absence of any concrete evidence there was a God. Hers, on the other hand, was based on the acceptance of the unprovable. Like oil and water, no common ground existed between them, nothing for the two to build on. As the years passed, faith became a wedge that slowly drove them apart. As family matters consumed more and more of Wendy’s time and attention, she attended mass and prayed less and less, until she finally stopped altogether. It wasn’t really Yang’s fault. He’d been up front with his beliefs. She’d lacked the strength to stick to hers.
Wendy slumped into the chair, ignoring its creaks of protest, and stared at the single white plumeria flower that adorned the middle of the table. She sat for a long time without really seeing it, as jumbled memories of her marriage to Yang and her life in Beijing rattled around her head.
Yang was a workaholic, consumed by a kind of crack cocaine that came with high political office–prestige, wealth, and power. As a former Olympic gold medalist for China and the commander of the United States-China Mars mission, he was a Hero of the People before entering politics. His adept handling of China’s annexation of the Spratly Islands skyrocketed him to prominence in China’s political circles, first to the Politburo and later, with financial support from wealthy Chinese business interests, to the Presidency of the newly formed Confederation, the union of the world’s twelve largest economies. The phenomenal success went to his head.
When they were first married and she moved to Beijing, Yang was the rising star of the Politburo and she was the famous American astronaut, an international celebrity on par with Hollywood starlets and royals. But as time wore on, and tensions between China and the United States resumed, the Beijing media began to criticize her for her “American-ness.” Blogs and Internet chat rooms questioned her exemption from the “one child” rule and circulated false rumors of lavish parties, trips to exclusive Parisian spas, and drug use. Any time she left the protection of the State-furnished mansion, the paparazzi hounded her mercilessly. Faced with mounting criticism and growing anti-American sentiment throughout China, she found herself increasingly avoiding State functions and public appearances, much to the relief of Yang who seemed to have no stomach for the condescending glances and hushed conversations that frequently accompanied her arrival. For a while he resorted to individual appearances, making excuses for her absence, but he soon dropped the pretext and often just went alone. When the function required an escort, his beautiful assistant, Jennifer Chang, was always at his side.
Yang travelled constantly, ostensibly attending to important matters of State, but in her heart she knew it was his choice, his way of dodging her. When he did show up, he was constantly on the phone or called away for “meetings,” often at night and without explanation. The few conversations they did have were like walking on eggshells, avoiding any mention of her cancer or anything else personal or controversial in favor of mundane topics like the weather, traffic conditions or what they would have for dinner. Each day Yang became more of a stranger to her.
The growing rift with Yang came to a head when the news of Malia’s birth reached them. Han had arranged a video chat, during which she and Yang could see the new baby. Wendy thoroughly enjoyed the experience, making silly babbling noises and singing songs to the baby. On the other hand, Yang seemed edgy, frequently glancing at his smart phone and sending emails. When he did speak, he uttered platitudes. She knew his heart was not in it.
After the call ended Wendy was furious. “Don’t’ you care about your granddaughter?”
“Of course,” he said, staring at his smart phone
“Then why do you act so disinterested?”
“Of course I’m interested,” he said. His thumbs flew over the virtual keyboard. The fact was he wasn’t listening. He’d tuned her out along with Han. An update on the Martian landing in Tiananmen Square would not have gotten through.
Rage boiled out of her. “Put down the phone and listen to me, dammit!” she screamed. She had to find a way through his cloak of indifference. If she didn’t, their marriage was as good as dead.
He flinched and then glared at her. “What is your problem? I was sending an email about the vote. You broke my train of thought.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes, yes. The baby.”
“What color hair does she have?”
His expression was blank momentarily. “Brown I think.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “She’s bald as an egg. Don’t you remember Han and I joking about it?” She spat out the words.
He looked sheepish. “To be honest, no. I’m so wrapped up in this Moon independence vote I hardly think about anything else.”
She scowled. ‘No time even for your first-born granddaughter? That makes you a pretty lame excuse for a grandfather and husband.”
“Don’t talk to me that way.” His jaw muscles flexed, a sure sign he was gritting his teeth.
“Can’t you see what you’re doing? Work is more important to you than your new granddaughter. You’ve no more time for her than me or the boys.”
“Not as crazy as I must have been all these years. I sacrificed everything for you and the boys. Can’t you see that?” When her survival instincts told her to get out, take the boys and return to America, her faith and her resolve to be a good Catholic had prevailed. After searching her conscience, she vowed to remain with him, to live in Beijing, and raise the boys there in the Catholic faith, even though that meant she would forever give up any further aspirations of her own. With her decision came a singleness of purpose, and a profound sense of relief. She’d never looked back...until now.
He rolled his eyes. “You did what any good Catholic would do.” As an avowed atheist, in keeping with the secular views of the Communist Party, Yang had no standing to make such a bold faced assertion, though she did recognize there was an element of truth to it. Her “sacrifice” was an act of faith itself, a vocation no different than the priesthood or other religious orders. Had she made it out of love for her family or to fulfill an obligation to the Church? Perhaps both, not that it mattered now, at least to her. What irked her was Yang’s assumption she would be the one making all the sacrifices for the family, never him.
She glared at him. “How would you know? Your world centers on you. The notion of doing something for others, especially your family, never enters your mind.”
“Nonsense.” He was on the defensive. His eyes darted around the room, searching for an escape.
“In all the years I tended to the boys, what did you ever give up for me? Name one.”
His lips moved but no words came. He looked away for a moment and then shook his head. “You share in my success, the mansion, notoriety, glory. Many women would do anything to be First Lady.”
Her temper flared at the mention of other women, rekindled by her suspicion he was having an affair. “I don’t give a damn what other women want of you.”
The conversation ended in stony silence.
That evening, Wendy was still chaffing at Yang’s thoughtless remarks. When he announced he had to go out for another of his impromptu meetings she seethed at the thought he was having an affair. She’d had enough. She would find a way to penetrate his cloak of indifference, perhaps even uncover information she could use to discredit him. She didn’t care. It just felt good to fight back, doing something for herself for a change. The place to start was his study. It was never locked, though it was off-limits to her unless invited. This time she needed no invitation.
She began by searching his desk, an oversized baroque style piece of furniture set against the floor-to-ceiling windows that faced the door. She quickly came across a locked drawer. This was too easy. Yang would not be foolish enough to leave his most intimate secrets in such an obvious place. Then again, he was arrogant enough he probably assumed no one would ever have the nerve to look for them. In any event opening the drawer was not going to be a problem. The lock was an old pin/tumbler device, one with which she was very familiar from her childhood visits with her grandpa Tom. An expert lock picker from his days interned in Manzanar, he made a game out of key-based security systems of all shapes and sizes with his inquisitive great granddaughter, continually challenging her to improve her times on locks of greater and greater sophistication.
Yang’s desk lock was child’s play. After a quick trip back to her quarters, Wendy had it open in less than a minute using a simple torsion wrench and rake pick, treasured mementos of her great grandfather.
Her pulse quickened as she slowly opened the drawer. She wanted answers but at the same time she was afraid of what she might find. Her mind conjured up endless possibilities – a gun, love letters, drugs, child porn – she had no idea what to expect. What she actually found, however, was quite unexpected. The drawer was empty, save for a blank plastic card that fit in the palm of her hand. Was it a hotel key? Or a cipher for an off shore bank account? She had no idea at first, until she remembered the study had been remodeled several years earlier, ostensibly to improve “security.” Yang had been very clear with her the entire time. Stay away.
She began a search of the study anew, this time looking for hidden doors or movable panels that might hide a safe or another room. An hour later she had found nothing, though thoughts about the Security detail getting suspicious seeped into her head. They were notoriously lax when Yang was away, but sooner or later they would discover her in the study. Just as she was about to leave she glanced at the oil painting of him accepting the Olympic gold medal, one of Yang’s proudest moments. She’d seen images of it many times before, on billboards, buses, even on video. This was the original. Other than the desk, it was the first thing she or anyone else noticed when entering the study, a tribute to Yang.
She grasped the sides of the frame and lifted the painting from its wall mounting. This had to be it. Setting it down, she glanced at the wall behind the painting, expecting to see a safe door or sliding panel. It was blank. Looking closer, there was no sign of a seam or joint. There was only one other place to look, the painting itself. Laying it flat on the desk, she bent over until her nose was only millimeters from the canvas. This close, she smelled the scent of the oils and the brush strokes were plainly visible. She studied every square inch of the canvas until her head began to hurt. Nothing. Her search was beginning to feel like a wild goose chase. Perhaps she was wrong about Yang’s infidelity after all.
As she lifted the painting to its mountings, something felt odd under the palm of her right hand, something she’d not noticed before. It was a slot about the width of the cipher card. Returning to the desk, she retrieved the card and nearly cried out with glee when it slid smoothly into the slot. Moments later, the sound of motors whirred as a section of the tile floor slid back, revealing a flight of stairs. The tile joints had cleverly masked the edges of the floor panel.
Wendy descended the stairs, her heart pounding, unsure what lay in store for her. At the bottom of the stairs stood yet another door, a wall-mounted keypad next to it. She had no idea what the password might be. There was no way she could get past this without serious cipher-breaking tools, skills she did not possess. A feeling of gloom settled over her. Frustrated by this unexpected obstacle, she nervously flipped the cipher card over and over in her hand, searching her mind for possible passwords – birthday, street address, phone number, all too easy. Anyone with any sort of security background would insert symbols, upper and lower case, along with a host of other tricks that would make the password impossible to guess. Just for the hell of it she tried w-e-n-d-y. The display gave her the electronic equivalent of a raspberry. “Invalid Entry.” How ironic. An emergency fire cabinet to one side of the door included a fire axe and a length of fire hose. How about the axe? She dismissed the idea. The door looked beefy, probably made of case-hardened steel.
Deflated, she was about to head back up the stairs when she noticed a square panel, about four inches on each side, just beneath the keypad. It looked like the cover to an electrical junction box, probably containing the wires for the keypad. Wendy was a good lock pick but she was no electrician. Then she remembered the security system that guarded the nuclear weapons locker on the USS Ronald Reagan, the first carrier she had served on after getting her wings. It used smart cards and readers that looked a lot like this. Worth a try. She held up the cipher card next to the panel. It slid open with a hiss and a blast of cold air hit her in the face.
The room was as cold as a meat locker; it had a strange almost antiseptic smell to it. The once-hidden enclosure had the look and feel of a bank vault, though without the benefit of safety deposit boxes and safe. No sound emanated from the room whatsoever, other than the soft pad of her feet on the thick carpet. The center of the space was shrouded in darkness and the only light came from wash lamps shining up from the floor against the four black walls. Goosebumps shot up on her arms and she shuddered with the sudden chill. Something in the center of the room, drew her attention. She peered into the darkness, searching for a shape, a sign of movement, anything, and inched closer. Suddenly, a circle of overhead spotlights came on, illuminating the center of the room. She gasped, her heart pounding.
Twelve lifelike figures of varying heights, between six and seven feet, were arranged in two parallel lines. She could not believe her eyes. It was impossible but there it was. She was looking at a dozen warriors from the Terracotta Army, the assemblage of buried terracotta figures discovered near the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. She’d actually visited the excavation with the boys many years before and found the site quite breathtaking.
There was something very unusual about Yang’s secret art collection, quite unlike any of the figures on display in the museum. The figures originally unearthed in the three pits surrounding the tomb complex lacked weapons, the result of grave robbers, and were in various stages of decay. The twelve warriors in Yang’s collection, however, were in mint condition, dressed in their weapons and armor. If these dated back to the First Qin Emperor they were priceless.
She moved closer and gazed down at the two lines of life size infantry. Each figure was unique, down to its facial features. The lacquer finish shone with brilliant colors like she’d never seen. No detail was spared. The figures varied by height according to rank. Approaching the tallest figure first, he appeared to be a General. She studied it a moment, admiring the intricate detail and the exquisite craftsmanship. These were Yang’s treasures, his life’s achievement outside work. They meant so much to him he had made sure no one else would ever have the opportunity to see and touch them as she just had. They were his and only his. In many ways she was no different, trapped in a closed world controlled by him. Was this her reward for all of the sacrifices she had made over the years? Suddenly, she wanted to hurt him, make him feel the pain she was feeling.
In less than a minute she stood before the General with the fireman’s axe in hand. It had taken only one kick to break the glass on the emergency cabinet, retrieve the axe and return. As a precaution she shut the pressure door and locked it from the inside. If she’d triggered an alarm somewhere, her work would be done long before anyone broke through the door. She raised the axe and took aim at the General’s head.
When she awoke the next morning Yang was up and already dressed. As he passed the door to her sitting room he gave her the usual perfunctory greeting, indicating he would be off to work after making some calls from his study. She answered with a platitude and sat back to watch the fireworks. Moments later an alarm sounded and she heard running feet and shouts from the direction of the study.
Half an hour later Yang burst into her sitting room, his face red and twisted with rage. “You bitch! How could you do this to me?” The words spewed out like venom. His neck muscles stood out, taut as piano wires.
“Did what?” she answered casually, glancing down at her nails. She was sitting at her vanity, her back to him, and followed his movements in the beveled glass vanity mirror.
He lurched across the room like a charging bull elephant and then came to an abrupt stop a meter behind her, glaring at her in the mirror. “Don’t be coy with me. The surveillance cameras recorded everything you did.”
“Is that so?”
“Answer my question or so help me God I will kill you with my bare hands right here.” Yang never swore. He was on the verge of losing it. For a moment she thought he might strike her.
“This was the only way to get your attention.”
“Is that all you have to say?” His voice was shrill. “You almost destroyed a priceless art treasure so you could talk to me? Are you out of your mind? I ought to have you committed.”
“You had no right to keep those soldiers to yourself.”
“And you had no right to ransack my study. Now I’m sure of it. You really have gone bonkers.” She had not in fact harmed his prized collection at all. She simply left the axe on the floor as a sign of what she could have done. Apparently, Yang got the message.
“Oh, by the way, I sent a tweet to an old friend who works for the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. I told him about your extraordinary collection and how you’d love to showcase it there as the start of a world exposition, you being the philanthropic art collector and all.”
“Oh God, you didn’t,” he moaned.
“Oh, but I did. You’ll be hearing from him very soon.” Yang would be getting lots of unwanted attention from antique art news reporters to the Confederation Attorney General.
Now she was getting angry. “You really don’t get it, do you? This is about me, not you or your secret art collection.” She glared back at him in the mirror.
He rolled his eyes, making no effort to disguise his contempt for her. “How the hell is this about you? You do nothing but sit around and primp all day while I work my ass off. Did it ever occur to you that everything you have comes from me?”
Now she was furious. “Listen to me you arrogant prick. I’ve given up everything so you can have your career and what do I get in return? A pat on the head, an occasional ‘good girl,’ and some nice bling at Christmas. And you aren’t even a Christian! Those toys soldiers of yours get more attention from you than I do.”
“Do you have even the foggiest idea what I do? Billions of people expect me to look after them. That is a huge responsibility. I don’t have any spare time to amuse you.”
“Screw you!” she shouted.
Yang lost it. Sliding past her shoulder, his face contorted in a testosterone-driven rage, he lashed out at her prized collection of fine perfumes, many of which she’d had for many years. He slammed his arm against the polished surface of her vanity and swept the entire surface clean, sending crystal atomizers, cut glass decanters and bottled gels crashing into the mirror. It instantly shattered, along with many of the fine glass containers, raining glass shards onto her.
Wendy cried out in shocked surprise and held out her hands to shield herself. A piece of flying glass struck her cheek, slicing a one-inch gash that immediately gushed blood.
Yang’s anger instantly evaporated. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” he stammered. “I never meant to hurt you.”
Never taking her eyes off his distorted image in the remaining fragments of the mirror, Wendy said, “I’m leaving for the beach house this afternoon. If you ever want to see me again, be there tomorrow morning. Now get the hell out of my room.”
A loud crash rocked the beach house and she was instantly wide-awake. A large palm frond had blown onto the tin roof. Just hours old, the blow up with Yang was still fresh in her mind, his bitter words and facial expressions lingering like the phantom image from a flash on a dark night. So were the anger and pain she had felt, witness the throbbing pain in her cheek. Suddenly, the kitchen was stuffy and confining. She needed some fresh air, away from anyone or anything related to Yang.
She removed the GPS bracelet she always wore, careful not to trip the alarm latch, and placed it on the table. The always-present Security detail would think she was still fast asleep in her bed. Not that they really cared. Their job was to protect Yang and he would not arrive until the next morning, assuming he cared enough to show up at all. To them, she was the American trophy wife, an adornment to be placed on the mantle and forgotten, left to collect dust and oxidation.
Free for the moment, Wendy headed for the one place where she always found peace, soothed by the sight and sound of breaking surf and the feel of sand and seawater oozing between her toes. As she trekked across the beach toward the water, rosary in hand, it occurred to her that the beach house was a giant metaphor. The once pristine dwelling was losing its battle with the salt air, jungle and weather, just as her once well-toned body grew weaker from the cancer. The difference was the beach house could be repaired. It hurt to know how soon her life would end, no matter how much her mind and spirit still craved it. She wasn’t done living – didn’t God know that?
She stopped short of the shore break, ankle deep in the churning cauldron of sand and seawater, and dropped to her knees, overcome by the inescapable truth even God had betrayed her. A loving God would have rewarded her for her sacrifices, not played a cruel hoax. She begged for mercy, just a little more time. As she prayed, the next wave arrived with a hiss, sluicing cold seawater over her legs and waist, and suddenly it all seemed so pointless. She threw the rosary into the surf and then she doubled over and cried, her bitter tears mixing with the salt as wave after wave ebbed and flowed around her. When she was left with dry eyes and an aching throat, the sea withdrew with the falling tide.
For a long time she just laid on her back looking up at Arcturus and Vega, the two brightest stars in the northern celestial hemisphere, letting random thoughts and sounds pass through her mind like blowing leaves. Then a new sound appeared, but this one was far from random. It was the soft melody she first heard on Mars so long ago. Intertwining with the natural sounds in and around her, the sinewy song burned into her mind gradually soothed her troubled spirit, leaving her with a sense of peace more intense, more complete than any she’d ever experienced before.
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