Char cupped her jaw with both hands while lying on the bed. She missed how their names came together. It wasn’t enough to hear the words inside her head, she wanted to feel the sounds leave her throat.
“Viv and Char.
Char and Viv.”
One was a celestial paralegal and the other a worm farmer. They had been two opposing souls puzzling out the world together. Until Char was left behind with the painful remnants of their relationship. Viv had become Vivi-AHHH-na, complete with a new career path and new love. Meanwhile, Char grasped at and squeezed fond memories to keep them from fleeting. The distance between them was exponential. Her sorrow grew heavier with every passing day.
Char replayed the weeks of distant moods while staring up at the ceiling. All her attempts at early morning bagel runs were met with cold touches.
A fresh wave of tears welled. Char didn’t know why space was so goddamn important, but she imagined the silence couldn’t be lonelier than the absence of her ex. Her spinning mind and clogged heart ached for vengeance.
She pulled up all the information about Viv’s precious Proxima Centauri Space Convoy. Her fingers flew over the keyboard as though typing was her last stand against the breakup. Desperation made her bold. She too could leave for something better. She too could get into the space program. She clicked submit at the end of the application.
The acceptance email came while she was curled up in a comforter that was wet from another round of tears. The ping of an incoming message was so startling it cut through the room’s emptiness. Finding her name on the roster was something to get dressed for and smile about. The official Proxima Centauri seal looked better every time she reread it.
But not even borrowing Viv’s dream could make things right. A second message arrived shortly after, all but confirming the offer to go to space was as real as the separation.
“This is Viviana. Tell whoever keeps calling for space references to stop. My goals aren’t a joke. Grow up Char.”
Char’s worries altered over the next few days. The ongoing communications from the space agency should have felt like a dream come true. Instead, the initial excitement evolved into new anxieties. A change like this was too big and abrupt to fit her comfortably.
The next step in the process was an in-person interview, and her chance to clear everything up. She sat in a blue vinyl seat, in a small room tucked into a large business tower. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. No one really expected much of a pleasant, bland person, and she would lean into that today. She excelled at being mediocre to the point of invisibility. Certainly, space expeditions required an above-average achiever.
The man who entered had hand movements, eye contact, and a smile that were all brisk. He sat down at his desk. He smoothed his name badge several times against his chest as though he were wishing it into a tie.
“I don’t think this will work,” she blurted out. Her nerves quickly erased any trace of subtlety she was hoping to maintain.
The man paused with his smile held in place while glancing around the room. “What won’t work?”
“Me. I can’t go.”
“Let’s start with an introduction.”
“You already know my name and I can see George printed on your badge.”
Char uncrossed her legs again, knowing this was the moment to assert herself in mock confidence. However, she was unsure how to maneuver her elbows outside of the chair’s overstuffed arms.
“Tell me what’s on your mind, Char.”
She leaned forward. “The worms aren’t built for space, and I also am not good for space, also there is the likability of myself, and surely the crew needs power balances that I am not suitable for…”
“Stop, please.” He unclipped his badge and put it on the desk face down. “You don’t have to impress me, or convince me, but what are you talking about?”
“My name on your list is a mistake. I didn’t mean to actually go into space.”
“Great, thank you so much.” Char took a huge breath. She hadn’t expected to clear everything up so quickly. “I’ll just be heading home. We can both laugh about this tomorrow.”
“You still have to go. This interview is just a formality. Look, you’ve even got a seat number assigned already.” He turned the screen and pointed to the number eighteen. Char skimmed the rest of the details listed under her name. There was far more information than she had provided on the application, and she tilted her head trying to decipher some of the codes.
“Isn’t there something you can do? It can’t literally take one application to get on to a space convoy.”
“Normally I’d agree. Most of the professors and scientists that come through here must qualify through a very rigorous entrance process. They fight over the Proxima Centauri project. It’s the largest honor, prestige, and career move most of them will ever strive for. However, worm farmers fall under the nourish-Earth movement. Which is valuable and important in its own right. It’s difficult to attract this vital profession.”
Char couldn’t tell if he was serious, or playing a cruel joke.
“There’s a notation about a thesis you wrote several years ago. The Future of Lumbricine Vermiculture, which as you highlighted, earthworms have the double workload of soil enrichment and providing minimally processed protein for dietary health. Knowledge like that is what we need for the space garden. Really impressive actually, it guaranteed you a spot on the mission.”
“There must be thousands of other worm farmers to choose from.” Char pleaded.
“You’re the only one who applied. That makes you one in a thousand.”
She slouched into the chair in disbelief. It was as if the universe was against her.
“Look, right now we need you.” George clipped his badge back into place. “And you applied. So we’ll see you back here soon. Right?” His expression had gone from friendly to stern. Char nodded.
As she made her way out of the building and boarded the train, she remembered a dismissive counselor in her final year and the assigned internship for worm theory. Surely meant as a joke. She had settled into the role out of spite, to prove that there was value in worms, even if others laughed at the idea of it.
The instructions for the next phase came quickly. All further training and gear fitting for the Proxima Centauri voyage would be done at the lunar base. She had a week to pack and say goodbye. Though there wasn’t a single person in town that deserved a goodbye. She would leave Earth on her own terms, complacent and indifferent.
Packing up her scorned past for a future she didn’t care about included very little — a few worn-out socks and underwear. She zipped up the three-by-six personal case that had too much room and sent it off to be inspected.
The more she detached from her personal life the more she threw herself into the farm lab. It was where she felt most at home. She dug her hands into one of the raised tubular soil beds. Small circles of dirt were darkened from where the sprinklers had just watered. Worms filtered through her hands. The filthy darlings wiggled around her fingers and dirt clumps alike.
These earthworms were a ticket off the planet, whether she liked it or not, so they were obligated to come along. She had already decided to reserve her lunar carry-on for a terrarium, knowing they would need a pressurized cabin. Of course, worm cocoons were provided, but it would be nice to bring her favorites. There was no way to tag a worm so she would need to pick only one variety. She chose the Oregon Giant, a breed she had cultivated specifically for the grant that funded this farming laboratory. They were hardy, fat, and fast producers of castings.
As they surfaced, she plucked them out and dropped them into a bucket. Dink, dink, dink, the worms would need a bath before heading into the sterile terrarium. Only authorized dirt was allowed on the moon shuttle.
Once the bottom of the bucket was covered with writhing annuli, she dumped the worms into the sink. The sprayer pushed them around while the filth circled the drain. Her mind drifted. Earthworms didn’t need love, but they did require care. And as she scooped them up into their new home, she resolved to be the same. Char closed the lid and watched them. They were pink and fleshy and tried to find footholds between one another. These earthworms were destined to be worms of another solar system entirely. Sealed away, contained as much as herself.
Against all expectations, even of her own, Char was first in line to board the space convoy. She stepped into the lunar shuttle and found seat eighteen. Her name and crew number were on a display embedded in the vinyl. Compared to the bulk of the outside haul, the passenger compartment was small. Two rows of seats faced each other, nine on both sides with two pilots at the front.
She sat down and held her terrarium of worms, despite a pilot repeatedly telling her to secure them above her seat. She looked around the cramped orbiter trying to see a future past this moment, or the lump in her throat. Resigned, she buckled in the worms. The air felt tight around her lungs already. Earth seemed impossible to escape. She steadied herself because she was doing more than leaving home. She was leaving behind everything she’d known about herself. Bold opportunities had always haunted her easy choices; and now she knew how bravery stung.
Even the harness and molded chairs couldn’t release her from the unbreakable bond of gravity, the breakup, the sense of home. How can you leave the place that shaped you, the place where you expect to take all the steps, from your first to the last?
It was customary to leave Earth at night, to slip away. The cool night air eased the friction between the ship and the lunar gravity line. Outside a small round window was a black sky. Not a shadow wedged between the light and darkness of space itself.
The pilot addressed the cabin once it was full. “We are set to launch. It’ll be a short trip, only about three-quarters of a day. The countdown will begin two minutes after we seal the orbiter.”
Char braced herself, an imposter among those who filed in after her, grinning and ready for a new frontier. But it wasn’t scientists or engineers she was afraid of.
She closed her eyes as her strongest memories reemerged.
Ten, nine, eight;
Sun-drenched patios, snap of a chocolate bar, sugar on lips;
Seven, six, five;
Dinner parties, mixed-up wine cups, blushing confessions;
Four, three, two;
Messy sheets, soft morning kisses, breathless love;
One. Take off.
All the beauty behind her eyes became so intense that her fingertips gripped the seat in fear but also in love, tenderness, and jealousy. As the shuttle shook and her heart raced, everything flooded her mind and reawakened her soul. The separation had broken her away from uncertainty, gravity, and her universe.
After the ship settled, she opened her eyes. They traveled smoothly along the gravity line. The woman across the aisle was laughing at something above Char’s head. It was the worms floating inside the terrarium. They were a big glob, playing and intersecting with one another. Char laughed too. These floating worms were at odds with the journey’s seriousness.
The woman smiled; her hairline neatly hidden behind her helmet. She pointed up at her own secured terrarium of dirt. Layers, multitudes, and whole ecosystems were in that microbial package. Char locked eyes with her sensing a radiance as the old gravity dissipated. The worms floated while Char’s heart skipped. There was a giggle, and it was contagious. Their muffled voices blended and filled the space between them.
The pilot announced the shuttle was between orbits and safe to get comfortable. Everyone in the cabin loosened their restraints. Char watched the woman remove her helmet. Her hair floated on end. Char felt a lightness in her stomach, a hopeful version of butterflies. Someone gasped and pointed out the window. As the shuttle gently rotated, the moon filled the window with light. The woman seemed to glow. When she caught Char’s eye again, a blush spread across her cheeks. Her heart filled with joy at the future she was free to fly toward.
Sixteen more hours until they reached the moon headquarters. Sixteen more hours of first impressions. The woman held out her hand, an invitation to what was next. Char took it sensing new worlds could be created under the light of a different star — something rich, layered, and breathless already.