By the year 2060, the International Space Station, begun in the late 20th century, had grown into an established institution, staffed by a community of over 750 semi-permanent residents, including scientists, educators, government officials, and military personnel from countries across the globe. A few years later, with an eye towards declining public relations back home, and with a stated purpose of “training the best and brightest of earth’s youth for a new generation of space exploration,” a new institution was created within the care and guardianship of the old: Space Academy.
Christopher stalked his prey with the quiet, determined intensity of a jungle cat. As he passed under the dark shadow of a tree, he could feel the heat of his own breath mixing with the cool night air, and a surge of excitement ran through him. It wasn’t the hunt; he had spent many summer nights tracking muskrats on the outskirts of his parents’ farm. It was something else—a feeling of anticipation he couldn’t quite yet put his finger on. Maybe…
His thoughts were cut short by a rustling sound coming from the tall grass down by the riverside. Christopher froze. After a few seconds, he slowly and deliberately sank to one knee, flipped the safety switch on his laser-rifle from “off” to “fire,” and raised it to the level of his left eye. In the infrared scope, he could make out a small blob of red heat, circled by rings of orange, then yellow, gradually plodding its way towards the cool, black expanse that was the river. But in his mind’s eye, he could see the 12 inches of brownish, slimy fur, the webbed hind feet, the flattened, scaly tail, and the destructive teeth. He had nothing against muskrats personally, but the plague of them that had descended on their farm this summer threatened to drive his father out of business. Christopher’s finger located the trigger, and the crosshairs of his scope gradually came to rest on the red center of his target. Almost there…
BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP!” Startled and bewildered by the loud, unexpected sound, both boy and muskrat jumped. Before Christopher had quite recovered himself, though, the muskrat splashed its way into the river and disappeared. Disgusted, Christopher rose to his feet, lowered the laser-rifle, and pulled the beeping message board from his back pocket. His annoyance was intensified by the fact that he had made certain to turn the irritating thing off beforehand. And since the required programming class he took last year in the eighth grade, not even his mother would have had access to the interrupt channel sequence he had so carefully encrypted. Who could possibly have both the skill and motivation to reach him this way?
With the click of a button and the imprint of his right thumb, the device stopped beeping and the screen lit up. An insignia Christopher recognized instantly flashed across the screen, and his heart skipped a beat. The subject line read simply, “PRIORITY ONE.”
Meanwhile, in an ordinarily quiet house on an ordinarily quiet street in a suburb of Paris, Marie was involved in a hunt of her own.
“MOMMMMMM! He’s doing it…again!” Narrowing her eyes into a look of pure hatred, Marie turned to the little boy grinning wickedly at her from under the legs of the kitchen table.
“Jean-Pierre, if you don’t come out here right now and give that message-board back to me, I swear the only beeping sound you’ll hear this morning is gonna come from inside your head—when I knock some sense into it!” With an evil giggle and a flurry of little legs, Jean-Pierre was off and running again, Marie in close pursuit. Slamming into the wall at the end of the hallway, he rounded the corner and ran up the stairs. Unable to stop her own momentum, Marie slammed into the same wall, knocking crooked a framed painting of a sailboat. She shook herself, and followed him quickly upwards, gaining steadily, her slender figure and long legs allowing her to climb three stairs to every one of his. Just as he reached the top and turned to run down another hallway, she sprang forward, catching him by the ankle, and pulling both of them, tumbling, all the way back down the staircase to land in a twisted heap of teenage-toddler limbs at the bottom.
Her triumph at snatching the message board away from his greedy little hands was quickly dampened when she saw his chubby face turn red, anger building itself into a raging tantrum.
“Don’t you even think about it—” She was too late. His howling fury filled the early morning air inside the house and possibly down the street as well.
The sailboat hanging crookedly on the wall above them abruptly disappeared within its frame, replaced with the image of a middle-aged woman with curlers in her hair and a tube of lipstick in her hand, which seemed to be half applied to her face. Jean-Pierre stopped wailing, resorting instead to periodic sniffles and moans.
Mon Dieu!I can’t even leave you two alone for the five minutes it takes to put on my makeup in the morning!” That was a lie, thought Marie. Try fifty minutes. Her mother’s crooked image continued to glare at them from the screen, and Marie tilted her head to one side to match it. “What on earth have you done to your brother now? You’re eight years older than he is, and I expect more from you.”
“But Maman, I didn’t—”
“Enough! I’ll be down in a few minutes. Try to act like a young lady until then. And shut off whatever it is that’s making that incessant beeping!” Then her face was gone, and the sailboat reappeared.
“PHHLLLLLTTTTTT!” Jean-Pierre, after sticking his tongue out and sputtering all over her with spittle, made his getaway down the hall, leaving Marie alone with her recovered message board, at last.
She felt a sudden dread, as her fingers keyed up the screen and her thumbprint scan was verified. What if this was really it? Of course, she’d wondered that about every message she’d received for the past three weeks. An insignia emblazoned with the letters “ESA” flashed across the screen.
“European Space Agency,” she whispered in disbelief. “And it’s Priority One.”
The dry heat of the Saudi Desert had not reached its hottest this morning, and a cool breeze seemed to flow from the Hejaz Mountains in the west, down into the vast expanse of the Najd plateau. The sound of traffic and other city noise from Riyadh’s three million residents could be heard roaring softly in the distance, but Rizan Shahada paid attention to none of these things. In the cemetery, surrounded by stones, he thought only of his mother. It was now a year since the accident that had claimed her life, and so much had happened that he longed to tell her.
Winding his way through the markers, he came to hers. It was an ornate, white marble slab, set flush against the barren sand of the desert cemetery. Rizan dropped his backpack under a nearby tree, and knelt down beside the stone, running his fingers gently over its polished surface. A crescent moon was etched near the top, and underneath it, JAMEELA KHATUN SHAHADA 2048-2079. Her name, Jameela, meant “beautiful,” and that was how he remembered her. But as Rizan gently tapped the sensor at the base of the stone, the holographic image that now sprang up in front of him was a woman in a shari’ah -- the black traditional dress Muslim women wore outside of the home—completely covering any trace of beauty, save only a warm smile. It was enough.
God is most great…” The image in front of him spoke in her familiar voice. “…I testify that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is His messenger...” The voice spoke the comforting prayers Rizan had heard her speak so many times in life, but these were not the words he longed to hear from her now. As the recording droned on, his eyes closed, his mind drifted, and there she was, in his imagination this time—a small, but sturdy woman, with beautiful, long dark hair, olive skin, and always, the warm smile.
“What troubles you, Kochi?”
“I have a dream now, mother.”
“Dreams are never troubles, my son. They are wonderful gifts.” Her voice was soft and consoling.
“What if I don’t make it? I know I’ve worked hard—but there will only be 20 chosen. Out of thousands and thousands.”
“Insha Allah, my son. If God wills it, it will happen.”
“I want you to be so proud of me, mother, when I’m out there.”
“I am already proud of you.”
Rizan opened his eyes. The holographic image of his mother continued its prayers for awhile longer, then faded back into the white stone. When he rose to his feet, he felt a single tear slipping down the side of his face, but he no longer felt sad, as he had when he arrived. He felt strong again, determined, and walked toward the cemetery entrance with a renewed sense of confidence.
He hadn’t gone more than ten feet before a loud beeping sound reminded him of his backpack, still sitting under the tree where he would certainly have forgotten it. He briskly traced his steps back to the tree, and with a glance toward his mother’s marker, reached for the bag, removing the beeping message board as he picked it up. “PRIORITY ONE,” read the subject line, and a warm, confident, smile came over his face.
“Insha Allah. If God wills it.”
One Cubic Shoebox
To: Karina Mironova
From: Russian Space Agency
Subject: Priority One
On behalf of the International Space Station and the Russian Space Agency, we are pleased to inform you that your recent application for admission to the International Space Academy program has been accepted.
From among 2.3 million applicants, you and nineteen other candidates have been selected to form the freshman class for the 2080-2081 academic year...
That was Karina’s favorite part of the letter; the part she had read from her message board at least fifty times in the past week—to herself, her family, her friends…her cat, her friends’ cats, and pretty much everyone in the small, industrial town in central Russia where she lived.
In someone else, this might have been taken as excessive pride or arrogance, but Karina was generally known to be a sweet, modest girl who had been dreaming about space since anyone could remember. And besides, they were all proud of her too—especially when she read to them the part of the letter that said:
We extend our congratulations, and remind you of the distinguished tradition of Russian space exploration you now join. Represent that heritage, and your country, with honor.
Unfortunately, that was not the part of the 862-page letter-of-acceptance that explained why, at the moment, she was attempting to cram a rather large feather pillow into a rather small shoebox.
SECTION 73-F, ii-iii: Due to limited size of living quarters onboard the station, students are allowed only such personal items as will occupy a volume of no more than 25 cubic centimeters. All articles of clothing, personal hygiene, and other necessities will be provided by the Academy upon departure.
“Won’t they have pillows at the Space Station?” The question came from Karina’s audience—three younger brothers, two sisters, one stray cousin, and Pasha, the family cat. They were all piled into Karina’s small bedroom, watching her pack. If it could actually be called packing. She finally gave up on the pillow, and flopped down on her bed in disgust.
“Yes, they’ll have pillows, but not my pillow. I’ve had it since before any of you were born.” Karina sat up on her bed and examined the shoebox again, which she had earlier determined was approximately 25 cubic centimeters, give or take a few. “Besides, I just can’t think of anything to take.”
Peter, the youngest brother, said “Take me, Ka’nina, take me!” He was immediately joined by a chorus little voices, all demanding the right to be shoved into Karina’s shoebox and shipped off to the space station with her.
“Hey, hey—settle down, guys!” She lifted Peter off the floor and onto her lap. “No space station could handle all of us at once, or else you know I’d take you with me.” That seemed to console her little fan club, at least for the moment. “And you will be there, sort of—you can send me lots of pictures.” Karina seemed to remember reading something about that in her letter…
SECTION 182-B, iv-ix: Each student must bring a standard message board, of one of the following models: Motorola 600-800; Zentel Platinum Series, Sony Powerboard 5.1 or higher; Praxis V, or MicroWorldSoft 2079.
In addition to official communications and academy textbooks, message boards may be used for storage of all music, pictures, and books of personal or entertainment value. Video games are prohibited—after all, there is only one game at the Space Academy.
After her siblings had left the room and moved on to other adventures, Karina quietly walked over to her dresser, and from it picked up a rock about the size of a grapefruit, though not nearly as round. It was covered in various splotches of colorful paint, as well as the names of each member of her family, some painted in large, crooked letters, and some painted with obvious help from her parents—a “get-well” present from when she had stayed in the hospital last fall to have her asthma condition genetically removed.
She carried the rock to her bed, and gingerly placed it in the shoebox, along with a few rings her grandmother had given her, and a small curling iron for her long, brown, wavy hair.
Still perched silently on a shelf overlooking her room, Pasha the cat watched her approvingly, licking his dark shiny coat from time to time. He, too, knew about the importance of taking care of one’s hair.
“Well, Pasha, I have about 15 cubic centimeters left in this shoebox. Ever chased mice in Zero-G?”
Far from amused, the cat ignored her continued to lick his fur. At least he knew where he belonged.
Half a world away, as he kicked the dirt off his boots and entered his house after a hard day’s work on his Southern California farm, Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, Jr. also knew right where he belonged. At the moment, it was the kitchen where he could smell the chorizo his wife had been cooking for the better part of the day.
“Where’s Christopher?” he asked her as he took a seat at the kitchen table and picked up the day’s paper. “I need him to show me again which files I need to delete before backing up the crop rotation software.”
Laura Rodriguez poured her husband a glass of ice water and set it on the table before him. “He got back just before you did. At least one smelly boy in this family has the decency to take a shower before coming to dinner.”
Ignoring his wife’s comment, the farmer took a drink of the ice water, and turned back to his paper. Perhaps he did smell of dirt and sweat, but he was proud of his work, proud of his farm, and proud of the dirt it consisted of.
Almost one hundred years ago, his ancestors had immigrated from Mexico, leaving behind their ancestral homeland for a place that held out the promise of land on which to live, work, and own. Manuel Rodriguez had been the first to realize his family’s dream…a dream he someday hoped to pass on to his son.
Dinner was an important family time in the Rodriguez household, and this night was no exception. For only three people, there was a surprising amount of food, and even more conversation. Christopher and his father would talk about the latest farming technology and equipment, while his mother would tease both of them about being little boys who loved to play in the dirt.
“I saw that muskrat that got away from you last week,” Christopher’s father said with a playful smile. “He winked at me and said to tell you he’d wear a bigger target next time.”
“Right, Dad. Maybe next time I’ll just let him go on with his all-you-can-eat crop buffet, compliments of Chef Manny Rodriguez!” Christopher paused thoughtfully for a second, tapping his fork against the side of his plate. “You know, Dad, you really should look into one of those automated pest perimeters. I won’t be able to help you with them next year when I’m up there.” He motioned with his fork out the window, towards the stars that were beginning to appear in the evening sky.
The smile on his father’s face disappeared, and he swallowed another bite of chorizo before responding. “Son, you know I can’t program one of those things.”
“I could teach you, Dad. You’re going to have to learn anyhow for the crop rotation software.”
“Or you could just stay.”
There it was, out in the open. Every conversation Christopher had had with his father since his acceptance message last week had been leading up to this—his true feelings about Christopher leaving.
“Now Manny,” Christopher’s mother started to intervene on his behalf, “that’s not entirely fair to him—”
“Is it fair to us?” Christopher’s father interrupted, his face flushed red with building anger. “Is it fair—everything we’ve done to make this farm what it is—and he wants to leave it behind for some chunk of metal floating around in space? Is that fair?”
“It’s not like I won’t be back.” Christopher snapped.
“You’ll be back, alright—with your brains full of stars or something. A farmer needs to have his feet on the ground, not his head in the clouds.” His fist pounded on the table as he spoke “Farming is in your blood—you can’t tell me it’s not!”
Now it was Christopher’s turn to be angry. “And you can’t tell me what should or shouldn’t be in my head!”
Christopher’s father pushed his chair back from the table, regaining his composure and lowering his voice. “No, but you are my son, and until you’re 18 years old, I can tell you where you can and can’t go. You will stay here where you belong.” He tossed his napkin onto the table in a display of the finality of his decision, then left the room.
A few seconds later, Christopher slammed the kitchen door behind him, running outside into the night, leaving Laura Rodriguez by herself in the kitchen. With a sigh, she cleared away the dishes, and put her mind to the immense task of rebuilding the bridge between her two passionate, stubborn, farmboys. There was still hope, she knew. They hadn’t killed each other, yet.
SECTION 73-G, iii-iv: Knives, laser guns, and all other dangerous weapons are strictly prohibited onboard the station. Space is an unforgiving environment, and a sufficient number of life-threatening opportunities will present themselves without extra assistance from our student population.
In addition, plants, animals, and all other organic matter—while a vital part of everyday Space Station research—may not be brought on board by students. This is in order to limit the spread of bacterial contaminants, and as with subsection iii above, is enforced for your safety, and that of our space station community.
The night sky twinkled with stars, while Christopher Rodriguez knelt quietly down in the rich, dark soil of his family’s Southern California farmland. Scooping a handful of dirt in his hand, letting it pour back to the ground, he fought back the tears and anger that threatened to overwhelm him at any moment.
The biggest problem was that his father wasn’t entirely wrong. Farming was in his blood. This farm in particular was all he had known in his life. It practically was his life. How could he possibly leave?
A breeze rustled through a nearby tree, and Christopher’s attention shifted upwards, away from the ground, and toward the night sky. The twinkling of the stars held his gaze for a moment, and his thoughts drifted toward space, and all that he had dreamed about for as long as he could remember. How could he possibly stay?
Determination crept back into his eyes, the dream slowly overpowering the doubt. He would go to the Space Academy. Somehow, he would convince his father and find a way. But he wouldn’t have to leave behind this farm, at least not entirely. Turning back to the ground again, he thrust both his hands deep into the dark soil, bringing up a pile of earth. He cradled it in his hands as he rose and headed back towards the house. After all, didn’t he have 25 cubic centimeters to fill?
Entering his house through the garage, Christopher noticed a metal container lying empty in the corner: It looked old and rusted, but about the right size. He quickly emptied the contents of his hands into the box, but then paused. The prohibition against “organic matter” in his acceptance letter sprang to his mind.
“Dirt isn’t organic matter, is it?” he asked himself. “I mean, glass is just super-heated sand, and isn’t concrete basically cooked mud?” The confident smile widened on his young face. “No…everything comes from dirt. Especially mi familia.”