Marcus was dying and he was vehemently opposed to it. He still had things he wanted to do, places he wanted to see. The only thing that stood in the way between life and death for him was money. Just three years ago, science had discovered a cure for his life-threatening condition; one injection that would reverse all of the damage that had been done in his body and prevent any reoccurrences. Unfortunately, the treatment was only available to the wealthiest. Not rich people; only filthy rich people, and Marcus hadn’t a spare nickel, but there just had to be some way.
It took a lot of digging; a lot of social networking, banging on doors and downright begging, but ultimately, he did find what he so desperately wanted. There was a government program for a select few, that if he signed on, he’d get the treatment; it was a no-brainer. He applied, and signed the 31-page contract without paying any attention to the fine print because when you’re talking about side-stepping death, the fine print is irrelevant. He didn’t know he was going to give his everything.
Fifteen years ago, he’d boarded the starship Investigator with his team and they began to search in and beyond our galaxy for life on other planets. There were more than 5,000 planets, known to exist just beyond our galaxy, and while multiple teams were searching, the Investigator had circled above a little over 600 of them, and landing teams had shuttled down whenever possible.
On this day, Marcus had rotated into ground duty, and now as he looked across the barren landscape, he thought it looked too bleak to host any kind of life, but as was protocol, he started walking, observing, and searching. With each passing year, his positive attitude had weakened in regards to finding any forms of life, but the contract was ironclad. He still had years to go before his debt would be paid off.
There were small mounds of dirt scattered randomly about the ground and odds were good that no one thought about their placement; that it was simply an oddity of nature, but Marcus kicked at them just to see if they contained any evidence. One particularly large mound, sent debris flying into the air, and some of it went into his boot. He dropped down onto the hard ground to empty the boot with a tirade of curses falling from his lips. “Damn it, son-of-a- bitch. I hate this f** detail. I’d sell my soul to be back home.”
When he tipped his boot upside down, some colorful stones spilled onto the ground. He picked up a blue and white one and examined it. It was just part of the landscape, but the color reminded him of the China that had always been in his mother’s China cabinet for special occasions. He wistfully rolled it between his thumb and finger and allowed himself to get lost in his memories.
He remembered the time he’d thought to help out by setting the table. He remembered it because of the switching he’d gotten when he’d dropped a dinner plate and shattered it. His mother had been furious because it made her set incomplete, and that set had once belonged to his grandmother. He’d broken a plate and his mother’s heart. He kept the small stone in his hand, mostly because it reminded him of home.
He pulled his boot back on and laced it up tight enough to not repeat the need to take it off again. Just as he stood back up, one of the team members, Petersen, called out to him. “Hey, Marcus, come take a look.”
The excitement in Petersen’s voice made him close the distance between them in quick strides. When he reached his teammate’s side, Petersen pointed, “What do you think of that?”
Laying on the ground was something that appeared to be a piece of a digging tool. As he stared at it, his mind flashed back to books that he’d read about early explorers who realized that chimpanzees made tools to serve their needs. He wondered if there might be some type of animal on this planet that made tools? Looking out over the bare land, he couldn’t figure out what a tool would be needed for.
Pulling an evidence bag from his back pocket, he squatted down and carefully slid the find into the bag. He slowly turned the bag around and tried to get a good idea of what was in it. Maybe it was just something that looked like a rough tool, maybe it was just searcher’s imagination at work for the millionth time. It was a common occurrence. Everyone wanted to find proof of life because that was the only thing that could break the contract – and everyone just wanted to go home. Hell, he just wanted to go home. He ordered, “Petersen, take this back and put it in a safe compartment, and then come back and keep looking.”
“Will do, Sir,”
Over the course of the day, several questionable objects made their way into evidence bags. There were roots that looked like strings; pictures were taken of what seemed to be some kind of writing; perhaps alphabet, more likely just scratches in the dirt that was naturally occurring. Marcus knew that his team was all at the breaking point. They’d searched for so many years without reward. As each planet was checked off of the search list, hope grew dimmer.
It was time to conclude the examination of whatever planet this was, so he signaled everyone to pack up and head back to the shuttle. He tiredly followed them, but because he wasn’t watching which way he was going, when his toe met an immovable force, he tripped. As he went down, his hand smacked into something sticking up out of the ground. The item was curious, so he dug some dirt away from it, and the more he dug, the more excited he got. In short order, he dug out a small tin box. It was rusted; its embossed lid without color, but it just might be what they’d scoured space for.
Holding it in his hands, he suddenly felt the need to lose the last meal he’d had. With sweat beading on his brow and the strength leaving his legs, horror danced a prickly path over his skin. With tears streaming down his face, he prayed. “Please, God, let me be wrong. Please.”
With shaking hands and the use of the point of his pocketknife, he carefully pried the lid off. Uncontrollable tears rolled down his face; a scream was stuck in his throat. Here on this barren planet; number 617 where there was nothing but emptiness, he lifted a faded photo out of the box. The heart-wrenching, blood-curdling scream that escaped him brought his team pouring out of the shuttle. When they reached his side there was no consoling him.
He raged, “Damnation on their souls; they did it.”
Petersen grabbed him and shook him to get him to calm down. “Sir; Marcus, who did what?”
Waving the picture in front of Petersen’s face, Marcus mournfully cried, “This is my family.” He opened his hand to show the bluestone, and wailed, “This was my mother’s china. Don’t you f**ing get it? We’re home.”