Thursday, December 20, 2012

12-21-12: The End of the World

“I wouldn’t wanna do that on a regular basis,” Greg said as he cleared the airlock at Base 5.

“It once took seven months Captain,” reported the AI gate attendant. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Yeah, new home. Old home may not…” he choked back emotion at the thought.

Walking felt good, reassuring, as his wobbly legs adjusted to the Martian gravity. He stretched and looked skyward at the expansive black dome over colony five. In a corner of the reception area stood the ancient Curiosity rover. He smiled at the crude technology, and admired its durability. The probe became a village mascot early on, still responding to signals from Earth mostly intended to be humorous. The term “rover” suggested behaviors to the distant programmers. The vehicle would occasionally be found staring longingly with it’s camera eye at the barren red surface of the planet, like a dog waiting to be let outside, one leg lifted.

“Your team would like to meet with you before you get settled Captain,” prodded the attendant.

Greg shook himself to attention and nodded. A transport glided to a stop at his feet, waited for him to be seated, and then proceeded to the observatory.

The mood was grim in operations. New arrivals generally caused an excited stir among longtime residents, but the completion of Greg’s flight coincided with disastrous news from Earth. In fact, the fate of two inbound crews still in transit was in jeopardy. All eyes were on spectrographic imagery and a variety of monitors, all studying the sun.

“Hell of a day to arrive,” said an unfamiliar scientist who briefly glanced at Greg as he moved between stations.

“How bad?” asked Greg, keeping conversation to a minimum.

“For us…minimal” came the reply. “For them,” the voice trailed off, “The end. The end of the world.” The astronomer looked at Greg. There were tears in his eyes.

Greg was stunned. Scientists are data-driven, detached, unshakeable. He tried to make sense of the various displays. Magnetic imaging, a variety of spectral views of the sun’s photosphere. Colorful and agitated swirls of purple and orange. Each with a bulging arch that dwarfed a hundred Earths, malevolently hurtling a scimitar of radiation and heat toward the helpless planet.

Colonists were no longer the orphans and risk-takers of the early days. As the round trip shortened, crews became comprised of voyagers with families and a desire to eventually return home. But home was now in the direct path of an epic event that was about to cauterize the home world beyond recognition.

On Earth, a final sunrise displayed a fantastic assortment of reds and pinks. At about mid day in Europe, global communications were permanently disrupted. There was no news coverage of the event. No one needed to hear a play by play of his own extinction. As Earth rotated into the expanding coronal outburst, sunrise ignited the atmosphere and boiled ocean water within minutes, scouring the ground at 1000 miles per hour. The experience was mercifully short, but horrifyingly intense. Bunkers underground were permanently sealed shut by molten rock. Iron barrier doors liquefied and imploded into the furnace-like caverns where government officials attempted to escape.

The Lunar colonies, hidden behind Earth for almost twelve hours, were the last to communicate with the Martian bases. They were incinerated as Earth’s shadow exposed them from behind its protective eclipse.

Greg watched events unfold, fully aware that the magnified blue globe on screen was four minutes further into it’s demise than the delayed light speed signal they watched. The only sounds issued by a dying planet, so silent and tiny at this distance, were from the men and women around him, some collapsing in grief at the realization that everything, everyone they had ever known and loved was being systematically vaporized and removed from being, forever.

Welcome to your new home indeed, thought Greg with a shudder. December 21st, 2112. The Mayans had been off by a hundred years.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Story #4 - 1983

How I Met Your Mother

I thought the evening would go as planned, but one phone call changed everything.

A rented tux was not my usual style, but I was the master of ceremonies. A pair of black and white checkered shoes and a Santa hat…now that was more like me. I carried them in a plastic grocery bag.

“Sorry to cancel at the last minute, but I’m afraid I just can’t go, I’m so sick,” came the call just minutes before leaving the house to pick up my date for the evening.

A week earlier I asked her, “You wanna go to my company Christmas party with me? I could use a date. The women I work with have never seen me with anyone.”

“Ooooh that sounds fun,” she said sarcastically, but then paused and added, “So is it formal or what? What should I wear?”

“I’m wearing a tux, but kind of as a joke. It’s at a nice club in Park Ridge.”

“Well, you want them to like me?” She hesitated. “Or hate me?” she said suggestively.

I ran through a mental inventory of the people I knew would be attending. It took me only a couple of seconds.

“I definitely want them to hate you.” I laughed. “A lot.”

So, on the night of the party, dateless, I was open to having a no-strings good time, a relaxing end of the year with no expectations.

I was early to the party. As part of the planning committee I needed to help check on last-minute items and serve as a point of contact at the club. I watched guests arrive from a vantage point at the far end of a festively decorated banquet hall. I had a drink in my hand, a smile on my face and a top-of-the-world attitude that was sure to get me in trouble by the end of the evening.

And then she walked in.

I’ll never forget the sight of my future wife entering the room with her friend and another guy. She wore a little black dress, heels that brought her close to my height, and I swear there was a golden aura around her, though my eyes may have just gone misty. Of course she had a date. How could it be otherwise?

When her roommate’s boyfriend headed to the bar, the two girls stood momentarily alone, and my mission for the evening became clear. Failure was not an option.

On the day after the party there was one more phone call that needed to be placed.

“How you feeling?” I asked my canceled date.

“Oh awful. I’m sorry, it just came on so fast. Did you go to the party?” she asked as if her absence would have been a game-changing disappointment.

“Yeah, I went. That’s why I’m calling. I just wanted to say thank you.”

She paused. “What?”

“Last night I met the woman I’m going to marry.”

“You bastard!” she yelled, but laughed to let me know it was okay. I’ll never know if she ever really planned on going, or if she cared that I went without her and had a life-altering great time.

Maybe I was being vindictive. Maybe it was just brutal honesty. Or maybe it was a truth that needed to be expressed with words that I needed to hear myself say. But most definitely, I was grateful, and this was goodbye.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Christmas Story #3 - 1978

A small gray-haired figure seated in the middle of the fiction section shook my hand and smiled. A well-publicized book signing at a local shop drew a small crowd for this gentle man who looked more like someone’s aging uncle than “The Velvet Fog.” I spoke briefly with Mel Torme as I handed him a copy of “Wynner,” his first attempt at a fictional novel. It was 1978, and my grandmother was about to turn 75.

Encounters with writers at book signings often last only a few anxious moments, compressed attempts to forge a personal connection for the sake of inspiring a meaningful autograph. The magnitude of the author’s fame weighs heavily on the moment, especially when that legendary singer wrote the music for “A Christmas Song.”

My grandmother knew him as little Mel Torme, the child prodigy who lived down the street from her and my grandfather in the 1920s and 30s. She spoke fondly of walking past their house at the end of the street, the one with the bay window where a budding young musician’s gleaming drum set was prominently displayed.

“Oh yeah, I remember that,” he said in his soothing voice. He looked a bit sad as he nodded his head, as if the memory was so distant as to be from another lifetime.

Now that I’m older I can imagine that a glance down memory lane might someday be a trip not worth taking. Life goes by so quickly it stings, like Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

I told Mel this brief story as I handed him a copy of his book. Authors always seem to gingerly open the front cover of their newly published works, a bit in awe perhaps at the product of their labor, lovingly selecting a blank page on which to make their mark.

“Her name is Lucille. It’s for her 75th birthday,” I told him.

He nodded, smiled again and wrote a scrawling message to Grandma, the lady who lived near him as a child, as unseen as sidewalk cracks and fire hydrants, just part of the tableau that was his neighborhood. How could he have known that she strolled to a nearby grocery store for a turkey and some mistletoe, or that down on the corner Yuletide carols were being sung by a choir.

Someday Grandma would hum the comforting tune that rolled from Mel Torme’s mind during the middle of World War II, but that was years away. It was cold and beginning to snow. She had shopping to do and Grandpa was expecting her at home.