Every Place is Halfway to Somewhere

Unable to take his eyes from her sallow face, Hal held his wife Sandra's hand. Again, he cursed the expedition medic for disappearing in a blizzard--her body never located. Sometimes, he suspected she had done it on purpose because she couldn't stand the hardship. Probably it didn't matter: most of the pharmaceuticals were exhausted, and no medic could treat the adverse conditions that slowly poisoned them all.
"You sent another distress signal?" He asked his younger brother Bob.
Outside the plasti-shell bedroom, furnace-like wind whipped the scorched planet surface. Somewhere a tie had broken loose, and the freed line forlornly thumped against the family shelter.
"The array is only half charged," Bob said. "Insufficient sunlight through the dust. Look, I've broadcast a distress burst once a week for the past four years without a response. Skipping this week makes little difference."
Hal ignored him, and his mind raced through a hundred what-should-have-beens. Four years ago, their disabled ship marooned them in this star system. Their lander, its fuel all but spent, crash-landed in grassy plains during a promising spring. Just two months after they arrived--only days after they finished stripping the lander--violent solar flares pounded radiation against the planet's ionosphere. Already at a tipping point, the climate worsened, alternating frigid winters with blistering summers that became harsher each year until a desert spread about them. The severe storms also pumped an unexpected blend of chemicals into the ionized atmosphere.
"Sandra, Honey, can I get you anything? Water?"
All twenty adult colonists and eleven children suffered from exposure to the Jekyll to Hyde conditions, but after her pregnancy, Sandra most of all. Her body had deteriorated to a drying husk, and her voice was the raspy remnant of a once lilting soprano.
"No, Love. No more." Sweat shimmered on her forehead, sweat that glittered and sparkled with the poisons from her system. Her fever had returned and pain strained her voice. "I have no strength left. I hate to dump everything on you, but nothing's left of me. Please, I want to say goodbye to our children. Give me ten minutes with Mary before you bring Danny."
"Karen is making lunch for everyone." Bob looked uncomfortable with the pronouncement, as if he were anxious to be elsewhere. He pulled Hal aside and whispered, "Sorry, I've got to go. The well is dry and the recycler is down to critical.  If Jake and I don't find a fresh water source soon, none of us will survive this summer."
Bob patted Hal's shoulder, glanced at Sandra, and left.
Hal kissed Sandra's cheek and then went to the common room joining their shelter to Bob's dome. Hal hesitated. His daughter Mary sat with her digital scroll, working through lessons intended for a child much older than her seven years. Two days ago, she had stormed out of her mother's sickroom and had seldom returned to see her since. Was she still angry?
"Your mother wants to talk to you." Hal knelt and wrapped his arm about her shoulder.
She pouted for a moment, and then took a deep breath. "Is Mama dying, Daddy?"
Surprised, Hal could think of no reply. How long had she known? He pulled her close and hugged her.  Now, he guessed at her anger: her mother was abandoning her in bits and pieces.
Although he tried to hide his pain, she apparently read his response as an answer to her question because a gasp caught in her throat. She trembled in his arms.
"Your Mother has no choice, Honey. She doesn't want to leave us, so please don't be angry with her. Be brave for her sake. She wants to say goodbye." Hal wiped away the girl's tears and sent her to Sandra.
Damn. If he had been a better father, he would have noticed his daughter's struggle, and then he could have helped her see . . . not likely, Hal couldn't cope himself. How do you explain death to a child? Still, she was her mother's daughter, a real trooper. She would put aside her resentment to say goodbye.
Danny was a different problem.
Hal located his precocious three-year old watching a sim-rat wend its way through the computer-generated maze. The boy had been the first child born on the new planet just a year after they arrived. A stillbirth for Bob and Karen plus two miscarriages among the other colonists discouraged anyone else from challenging the environment with more pregnancies, and so Danny remained the only native-born.
The planet left its mark on the boy. He was often exhausted after any short physical activity. His pale skin tended gray and looked unhealthy. Despite his physical weaknesses, he fairly glowed in fascination with the sim-rat in the maze.
"What are you doing?" Hal asked.
"Seeing if Waldo can find his way out."
"Oh?" Hal glanced at the maze. The sim-rat's head darted from side-to-side at each branch before it made its choice. "I don't think he can escape, Danny. That maze has no entrance or exit."
"All he has to do is look up, and then he can just climb over the wall."
When Hal returned with Danny, Mary waited with a sullen scowl just inside the door.  At first, Hal thought Sandra was asleep, but she turned her head when he closed the door. Her sunken cheeks sapped the color from her face and left her with a ghostly pallor. As if she were dehydrated, the sweat had dried from her wrinkled forehead, and her dull eyes held no glisten.
"Come, Danny." Still lucid, she forced a smile through her pain and extended her hand. "Kiss your mother goodbye."
Demonstrating unexpected vigor, the boy ran to her. She tried to pull him onto the bed but lacked the strength. Hal lifted Danny to sit alongside his mother and then beckoned for Mary. The girl hesitated and then joined them. Clinging to him, she broke into fresh tears and pressed her face against his leg. Sandra reached out to stroke the girl's hair.
"Do you know what's happening, Danny?" Sandra asked the boy, but she looked directly at Mary.
"Mary's crying." With a puzzled look, Danny scanned each face. "Did something bad happen?"
"I've been sick a long time, Danny." Sandra's head sagged against her pillow but her eyes continued to watch Mary. "I hoped not to leave you and Mary, but it's . . . . Remember, I love you both. Be good for your father."
"Can I go with you, Mama?" Danny asked.
"You stay with your sister and me," Hal said. "Death's a trip we each take alone. Goodbye is sad, but we still love those who go before us."
Sandra gasped and sighed but could no longer speak. Her eyes pleaded with Hal. Her mouth formed soundless words. Hal thought she whispered, 'Love them for me.'
Hal firmed his lips and nodded.
"Where are you going, Mama?" Danny asked.
"To a better place than this one, Danny." Hal cleared his throat to answer for her. "She's going to a better world."
"Don't go, Mama." Tears filled Danny's eyes. "We can make this world better."
Hal sat up in the darkness, his throat dry. He needed a bath and didn't like the way he smelled.
He reached for Sandra, but she wasn't there. Two weeks since she died and still the same nightmare of unremitting thirst in a barren desert. The nearly exhausted recycler still rationed drinking water, but the small supply allowed for no other usage.
After forcing himself to slowly exhale, he sipped water from his bedside cup and checked the monitor. Past midnight and the kids were sleeping. He lay back and stared into the darkness, but sleep was far from his mind. When would he stop wishing to hear her breathe beside him? When could he turn the next corner without expecting her welcoming smile?
He cocked his head to listen. No pounding of loose lines against the shelter tonight, no howl of wind. Summer was far from over, but they could explore in this respite. At dawn, he would join Bob and Jake to search again. Finding water for the children was the best thing he could do for his dead wife.
The next morning, he and Bob left the family shelter to meet Jake. Outside, not only had the harsh wind diminished to a warm breeze, most of the airborne dust had settled leaving a sandy residue atop the twelve plasti-shell domes. Only a few steps from the buildings, the persistent sand cradled a surprise, a pond of water.
"What the hell," Bob shook his head. "This isn't possible."
Hal bit his lip and examined the anomaly. A mirage? Couldn't be. Not this close.
"I can accept the lull in the storm," Bob said. "Even in summer, it can't blow like a furnace all the time. But this--"
"A pond where there was only desert before." Hal knelt, gingerly touched the surface, and then scoped up a handful of the liquid and smelled it. "How?"
Without a word, Jake arrived and surveyed the situation. Massaging his chin as if that would solve the puzzle, he marched the circumference of the pond and counted.
"Thirty-seven paces in circumference," he announced when he finished the circuit.
The pond was round, about ten meters in diameter. The water was clear to the bottom, but  refraction kept Hal from accurately estimating the depth. Jake tossed a rock into the water and watched it sink. He rolled up his sleeve and plunged his arm into the water.
"I can't reach the bottom. Comparing my hand to the rock, I'd guess at least two meters deep. Just a rough estimate, let me see . . . of one-hundred-sixty-thousand liters, more than enough to top off the recycler. I'll spread the news."  Jake strode off.
Hal licked the moisture from his hand--cool with a faint mineral taste.
"Hey!" Bob said. "Wait until Karen tests that stuff."
"Looks like water to me." Hal extended both hands into the water. He lifted the water to his lips and drank. "Tastes like water, too."
"Stubborn, but I guess you're right," Bob said. "We likely won't find another source of water. Worse goes to worst, we can distill it into the recycler. Damn pool's almost perfectly round. Doesn't look natural."
"Looks like it was dropped into place rather than formed by water bubbling up from below." Hal stood and surveyed the pond. "I suppose it could be a sinkhole or a change in atmospheric pressure that forced the water to rise. Whatever produced this is the first good luck we've had in four years."
"I don't believe in luck or miracles," Bob said. "Maybe we aren't alone on this planet. Perhaps someone wants to help us."
"Aliens? If aliens are coming to our aide, they are four years late." Hal shrugged. "Just because we assume there's a rational explanation, doesn't mean we'll ever discover it. However, I won't believe in alien intervention until I see one of them. More likely, the weather change encouraged an artesian well to spring up."
At Jake's news, other families ventured from their shelters to marvel at the water. Most brought their older children with them. Karen--also the colony's xeno-biologist--kissed Bob and then sampled the water for testing.
Just after Karen left, Mary arrived. With a broad smile on his face and an uneven gait, Danny followed his sister. Despite the boy's obvious difficulty in walking, Hal couldn't bring himself to send either child back indoors: they were too excited.
Hal glanced at his brother and whispered. "Don't put ideas of aliens into the kids' heads. They have enough worries."
"Fine. No aliens. Miraculously, a complete pond percolated up overnight." Bob shrugged, then cocked his head. "The bottom is coarse sand. Why doesn't the water seep away?"
"Daddy!" Danny demanded.
"Could be a layer of clay or rock below it." Hal shrugged. "Maybe water continually bubbles up to replace what's lost."
Mary knelt and ran her hand through the water. She slapped the resulting ripples, and giggled when the water splashed in her face.
"Daddy?" Danny tugged on Hal's pants leg.
"I'd hate to think the pond is dependent on the weather," Bob said. "We could lose it in the next hard blow. If Karen reports good water, we should pump as much as we can into the shelter reservoirs as a precaution."
"Water, kids." Hal picked up Danny and pulled Mary close. "Things are looking up."
"All we need now is some decent soil to farm instead of this barren sand and a few trees . . .  If you wish for a coin, you may as well wish for a million. Were the pool bigger, you kids could learn how to swim." Hal laughed, the first laugh he could remember since Sandra died. "That would be fun, huh?"
"Does that mean there's not enough to take a bath?" Mary asked, disappointment spreading across her face.
"Not enough?" Danny asked.
"Sorry," Hal said. "There's plenty for a bath, Kitten. Did you want something, Danny?"
The boy screwed up his face in thought. "Nothing, I guess."
Karen returned from the lab.
"That was quick," Bob said. "Is the water pure enough to drink?"
"Pure?" Karen firmly kissed him. "I couldn't believe it, so I ran the test twice. It's indistinguishable from our water stores. It couldn't be better if we made it ourselves."
Six months later, just after Danny's fourth birthday, the colony harvested its first hydroponic crops watered from the pond. The recycler had no problem keeping up with demand because no matter how much water they pumped, the pond remained pure and full, fed from an undiscovered source.
On the opposite side of the encampment, Bob engineered a pool for the excess gray water as an alternate supply for the hydroponics garden. Hal's brother had combined his expertise in agronomy with a lifelong interest in geology to select the site. Although the sand might be a good filter, they didn't want seepage of gray water into the sand to contaminate their only source for fresh water.
Composting waste provided fertilizer for the hydroponic system, but Bob's ultimate goal was to amend the soil until it could support plant growth. The following year, the hydroponic crops were the best ever.
"Your fifth birthday is coming soon, Danny." Hal worried more about the boy than Mary. Mary's health was as good as any of the older children, but Danny's grayish skin now hosted flakey patches that looked like tiny fish scales. Shadows below his eyes made his face look gaunt. "Do you have a wish list?"
"I wish I could help Uncle Bob," Danny said. "But I don't know what he's trying to do."
Hal grimaced. Bob's frequent desert searches for aliens was difficult for everyone to understand, not just the children.
"That's generous of you. However, it's your birthday, and you should think of something you want for yourself."
Danny pushed out his lower lip. He was too smart to fall for Hal's misdirection.
"Okay." Hal sighed. "Your uncle's dream is to make this world more like old Earth, you know, better soil to grow vegetables, start some fruit trees from our seed stock, maybe some grasses--but we are a long way from there. When you're stronger, I'm sure Uncle Bob will welcome your help. I have pictures of Earth on my computer, if you want to see them."
Three months later, they awakened to a compelling discontinuity in their environment.
The pond now extended one-hundred meters into green undergrowth. Unfamiliar trees peppered the shoreline. Both trees and undergrowth were mature as if transplanted by some invisible giant while everyone slept. The landscape looked like a painting in which only the most obvious parts of the scenery made it to the canvas.
"Too much to be natural." Hal pulled a stem of unusual grass from near his foot. "I could accept the pond becoming a lake, but not the spontaneous arrival of full-grown plants. Maybe Bob is right about helpful aliens."
"Please, no more about aliens." Karen's voice filled with concern. "That's all Bob talks about."
"How else can you explain this overnight transformation, Karen?" Hal pointed to the far side of the water. "Spiraling dark streaks in the sand, like a rotation, like good soil was stirred into the desert . . . and the sun is in the wrong place this morning. I can't believe the sun moved, so something moved the settlement."
"Without us knowing? Like we are prize specimens placed in a zoo with the desert defining our cage? You sound like Bob." Karen pointed. "Is that Bob coming around the lake?"
"Jake, I think," Hal said. "I haven't seen Bob all morning. With all this excitement, he must have started early."
Jake trotted up. "I counted seventeen trees, all full grown, but it's the damnedest thing. All the new vegetation and fertile soil blends out after about a hundred-fifty meters. Beyond that is only the desert."
"Where's Bob?" Karen asked. "I assumed the two of you worked all night on some project."
"Not with me," Jake said. "I haven't seen Bob since late yesterday. I was exhausted and came in early. He wanted to check an anomalous hill formation before it got too late. Wouldn't be so bad going out at night if this damned planet had a moon."
"Anomalous hill formation?" Hal said. "He didn't go on another hunt for benevolent aliens? I take that back. With what I see around us, I may join the search."
"Well, this lake and greenery wasn't here when I went to bed last night," Jake said. "But Bob claimed a cluster of desert hills south of the lander was two kilometers west of where it should be." Jake shielded his eyes against the sun. "I told him he was reading the maps wrong, but he didn't believe me. If he woke up this morning to the trees and the expanded pond . . . Well, anything unusual sets him off. Strange, I thought you could see those hills from here--must be the angle. Wait a minute. I don't see the lander either."
"Hal?" Fear lined Karen's face. "I don't like this talk about aliens, not after this mysterious overnight miracle and my husband missing. I want Bob back."
"I'll find him, Karen. Jake, we need a good map that shows those missing hills. No overnight sandstorm could change the landscape that much."
"Sure, I'll go with you." Jake patted his jacket pocket. "Let me get my scroll--a map on a pocket computer is hard on my eyes. I can't imagine Bob getting lost. Nobody knows the layout of this place better." Jake strode off.
"Bob's not stupid enough to get out of sight at night." Tears filled Karen eyes. "Not alone, where he couldn't follow our lights back. If he's still out there, he must be hurt." She left unsaid the obvious addendum, 'or the alien zookeepers took him.'
"Get some of the others to search the newly green area and check all the shelters, too. If Bob stayed up all night, he may have simply fallen asleep somewhere, maybe under one of these miracle trees. Jake and I will track down the mysterious moving hills because if my brother is not in camp, he'll be tracking that anomaly."
"Shh. It'll be okay. Take care of Mary and Danny for me, and don't worry. We'll have your wayward husband back before lunch."
After six hours of searching the desert, Hal and Jake not only failed to match any hill cluster to the one shown on the map, they could locate no remnants of the lander. By sunset, there was still no sign of Bob. When Hal told Karen, she needed sedation, but none remained in the medicinals. Frustrated and exhausted, Hal looked in on his children before he showered. Mary was still awake.
"How are you doing, Kitten?" Hal asked.
"I'm okay, Daddy. Did you find Uncle Bob?"
"Not yet. We'll search again tomorrow. How's your brother?"
"Danny coughed and cried all morning. Aunt Karen gave him some cough medicine, and he fell asleep. He's breathing funny, Daddy."
"He has asthma, Honey. Stress makes it worse."
Everything about this sorry planet makes it worse.
They never found Bob, and no more miracles occurred over the next three years.
On Danny's eighth birthday, Hal carried him to their favorite picnic spot beneath the largest tree on the lake shore. The boy's atrophied legs had been unable to support his weight for the last several months, and he seldom smiled anymore. Hal worried that the boy could not live much longer. So much for hoping that a benevolent alien zookeeper would intervene to help his son. If aliens secretly studied them, they were cold-blooded sons-of-bitches.
While he unpacked their lunch, Hal kept up a nervous patter. "It's too bad there are no fish in the lake. I think you would enjoy fishing. Remember fishing? I showed you pictures. Are you comfortable sitting against the tree, Son? I can move you."
"I'm good, Daddy." The boy's pallor was a dusty, flat gray no longer platted with scales, which had peeled away over the years like sunburned skin. His breathing was chronically ragged and irregular, but they had no more cough syrup nor any treatment for asthma. Nevertheless, Danny didn't complain.
"I wish your mother could have been here for your birthday," Hal said.
"I miss her, but her pictures don't look like what I remember."
The intricate details of Danny's memories always surprised Hal. "She was very sick when you last saw her. An illness can make you look different. Remember her the way she looks in the videos, that would be best."
"Did she die because of me, Daddy? Because I was born?"
"Why ever would you think that? You know that chemicals and radiation made her sick and affected us all. This world killed her. We each carry some mark from that exposure. Your birth had nothing to do with her death. You were one of her few joys in this barren place. Now, cheer up. She loved you very much. Except that she's gone, the world has gotten better, not perfect, but improved. We have hope."
"What about Uncle Bob? I wanted to help--"
"No one knows what happened to Bob. Let's not dwell on such sad things, Danny. I have good news. I've already told Mary, and she's excited."
"You're going to marry Aunt Karen."
"Huh? How did you know? Your sister, huh? Oh well. Your Aunt Karen practically lives with us already, and she takes such good care of you kids. She can't replace your mother, but what we hope is . . . maybe sometime soon . . . How would you like a baby brother or sister?"
"Would the baby be like me? You know, sick all the time?"
"I don't think so, Son. Very few sun flares anymore, and in this oasis, we've learned to avoid most of the environmental poisons, so there's no reason that this baby should suffer more than the rest of us. Your mother was our astronomer. She could have given you better information about the sun, but Aunt Karen, I mean, Karen, can explain about our environment."
"Aunt Karen already told me a lot, and I've looked at the pictures of home, Daddy. This world still isn't good enough for Mama--that's why she hasn't come back--and it's not good enough for a new baby either."
"You're wise for someone so young, but this world is the one we have. We are trapped here and must make the best of it. I see no other way but to plod ahead, to do our best with what we have."
Just after midnight of their wedding day, Karen shook Hal awake. "I thought I heard Mary scream."
Hal stumbled out of bed and pulled on his pants and shirt.
Mary burst into the bedroom. "Danny is lying on the floor, and I can't get him up. Hurry, Daddy."
He raced for the children's bedroom with Mary and Karen close behind. Hal scooped up his son.
The boy was thin and emaciated with little substance. Danny's eyes flickered open for a moment then closed.
Karen paused at the door. "I'll get the medical monitor." She ran for the common room.
Hal placed Danny on the bed. The boy's skin felt cool and dry.
Still crying, Mary waited in the doorway.
"Mary, go tell Jake what happened."
"Okay," she sobbed, but she didn't move.
"Now." Hal needed to keep his daughter occupied and out of the way. "Hurry."
She rushed off.
"Danny." Hal rubbed the boy's hand. "Can you hear me?"
"I think I did it right this time, Daddy." Danny's eyes fluttered open. "But it hurts. It hurts bad."
"What did you do?"
"Looked up for a way out of the maze. Bringing the pond to us was hard. I almost gave up on the trees and other stuff until I thought to move us instead, but I could only make the maze turn halfway."
"I don't understand, Danny."
"I'm sorry about Uncle Bob." Danny's voice was thin and weak. "I didn't know he was outside the circle when I moved us."
"You're not making any sense, Son."
"You have to look up to see them--the other worlds alongside the maze walls. I tried to find a place like the pictures of Earth on the other side of a wall so we could climb over. I wanted the world to be better like Mama needed."
Did Danny think that he was responsible for the planetary changes, that he had shifted them through space or time? No fever. Was he delusional? What he described sounded like parallel worlds, multiverses. Interfering alien zookeepers made better sense to Hal.
"You did good, Son." Hal humored the boy. "It's a beautiful world. You mother would love it. So would Uncle Bob."
Karen returned and connected the medical monitor to Danny.
At first, Hal could not hear the boy's whisper. He leaned closer.
"Daddy, are we there yet?"
"Where, Son?"
"I'm very tired, and I climbed so high." He whimpered. "I want my Mama."
"Yes, Danny." Hal glanced at the readings on the monitor. He could barely control his voice.
"You'll see your mother soon."
The boy smiled, and a last breath rattled from him.
Hal's head sagged against the child.
Karen rested her hand on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms about her and hugged her.
"He was just a little boy," he said. "I don't know how I can bear it. Life is too hard."
Karen kissed his head and helped him to his feet. She covered Danny with a blanket. Tears freely ran from her eyes when she hugged him again.
"Where's Mary?" she asked.
"I sent her for Jake. Isn't she back?"
"I'll find her." Karen slipped through the door.
Hal turned for another look at the still body of his son.
When he reached the entrance to the shelter, Karen waited in the doorway. A full moon rising above the horizon outlined her against the landscape. Mary and Jake stood near the lake watching the moon. From the water, a fish leaped. A waterfall splashed into the far end of the lake. Beyond the falls, a thick forest stretched as far as Hal could see.
The world was just like Danny described. Had his son found a way to shift among parallel worlds while the rest of them had struggled like sim-rats, unable to look up to find a way out of the maze? Perhaps Danny had only managed to move them from one maze into another, but the walls of this world looked far more pleasant than what they had left.
"My God." Karen reached out for him. "Not another miracle. Where are we now?"
Hal put his arm about her and led her into the moonlight.
"Danny's World," he whispered.