Atop a pillar of smoke and flame, the rocket rose into the blue October sky. The vibration of its engines shook the ground three miles away, where Arthur McLaren stood watching his wife leaving the Earth.

“It’s only five years,” she had said as they embraced one final time beneath the launch platform. A crowd of others saying their own goodbyes surrounded them, and the scent of kerosene and metal was heavy on the air.

“I know,” he said, and smiled to disguise his pain. “Five years of hopping over Martian sand dunes looking for fossil bacteria, while I sit at home running conference calls and weeding the garden.”

“Don’t pull all the weeds. They’ll be a rare sight when I get back,” she joked.

You better come back, he thought. “I will miss you,” he said, and kissed her fiercely, pulling her orange jumpsuit–clad body tight against his for a long moment. Then it was time. She had waved to him as the elevator took her and her nine fellow voyagers up to the shuttle, and he boarded the bus to return to the observation center to watch the launch.

And now the shuttle was gone, and the trail of smoke drifted away in the wind. A bell sounded, and a voice (was it human? Or computerized? It was hard to tell nowadays.) announced that the shuttle had achieved orbit. The time was 10:43 am, October 5, 2041. Arthur left the observation center, took a cab to the airport, and caught a flight back home to Virginia.

He ate a lonely dinner that evening, knowing it would be the norm for eighteen hundred nights to come. He was making tea afterwards when a call came in. Samantha McLaren, read the message on his watch. He went to the viewscreen overlooking the kitchen counter and turned it on. His wife’s image appeared.

“Hi, darling!” Samantha said.

“Hey. How was your launch?”

“Smooth. So far everything’s gone off without a hitch,” she replied. She looked tired.

“You’re on the Gateway now?” he asked, picturing the giant wagon-wheel shaped station spinning slowly in Low Earth Orbit.

“Yep. We’re here for eleven more hours. Then we board the taxi to Lunar Station. I just took my last hot shower for two weeks. It’ll be sponge baths only till we rendezvous with the Cycler.” She grimaced.

Arthur chuckled. “It’s still pretty primitive up there sometimes, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Heck, never mind sponge baths, this is my last taste of gravity for six months. Oh, on that note, guess what I forgot to pack?”

“What?” asked Arthur, wondering. Velcro shoes? Gyroscope? What was necessary in free-fall that could be overlooked?

“My hairbrush,” she answered wryly.

Of course, thought Arthur. Long hair tended to tangle horribly in weightlessness. It was one reason many female astronauts preferred to keep their hair short, but Samantha was proud of her long, blonde locks and refused to crop them.

“Fortunately, the shop here sells them,” Samantha continued. “Super-light, collapsible, carbon-fiber hairbrushes with reinforced bristles. Thing would probably survive a nuclear explosion. Still, it’s small enough to tuck it handily into a jumpsuit pocket.”

They chatted for half an hour before signing off to go to bed. At the end, Samantha said, “It looks like the Gateway is coming up over the Gulf of Mexico right now. We’ll cross Virginia in a few minutes. I’ll go pick out the light of Charlottesville and wave goodnight to you from the viewing dome.”

“I’ll wave back,” Arthur said.

“OK. Goodnight! Love you,” she said.

“I love you too. Goodnight!” Arthur turned off the screen and went outside, grabbing the binoculars he kept next to the back door. Soon, he saw a small light spot appear over the southeast horizon. He located it through the binoculars, increasing the zoom until he could discern the faint ring shape. Goodnight, he waved, and blew a silent kiss into space.

The next morning, a message appeared on his watch. Just left Gateway. En route on taxi –Samantha, it read. That evening, they chatted again via video. Samantha’s hair floated wildly around her head, almost obscuring the movements of the other passengers behind her in the cramped taxi. They spoke briefly and quietly before she signed off to give another person a chance to call home. The same thing happened each evening.

Three days later, Samantha and her fellow Mars-bound scientists docked at a space station orbiting 390,000 kilometers up the side of Earth’s gravity well. There they remained for three more days, performing final system checks and orbit adjustments, while waiting for the Aldrin Cycler ship that would take them to Mars to draw near. On October 13, everything was ready, and they boarded the toboggan-shaped taxi that would ferry them to the Cycler.

The taxi whipped around Earth to gain speed, then shot off to rendezvous with the Cycler ship hurling past the planet at six thousand kilometers per second. Seven days later, the two vessels docked. The travelers entered in, and made themselves comfortable for the five month journey to Mars. When Samantha called Arthur that night, she was freshly showered and much more relaxed.

Already, the Cycler was 800,000 kilometers from Earth, and adding 500,000 kilometers to that each day. The distance made itself felt in their communication. Light travels at nearly 300 million meters per second; it now took several moments for the video signals to pass between Earth and the Cycler. Each day, the delay was a little longer. Arthur, sitting at his kitchen counter, would say something, then wait ten, fifteen, twenty seconds before Samantha started to reply. Slowly, their conversations changed. The quick, choppy sentences tossed back and forth, thoughts only half-completed, gave way to longer statements. They were both speaking in paragraphs now. Other tasks intruded into their calls. Arthur would read his messages while waiting for her to respond, and he caught sight of her studying a tablet during her pauses. For the first time in his life, Arthur grasped the speed of light as more than a scientific principle, and the incomprehensible vastness of space started to register in his consciousness.

In early December, the communication delay, now minutes long, grew too great to bear. They agreed one evening to correspond with written messages and recorded video. They bid each other one final, sweet goodbye. Arthur was the last to speak. He looked into the camera lens and waved, then switched off the monitor, knowing that she would not see his farewell for a couple minutes. He went outside and stared pensively into the night sky.

Time passed. Spring came in Virginia, and Arthur sent his wife photos of their cherry trees in bloom. Robins sang amidst the blossoms while he mulched the garden beds. From the Cycler, Samantha sent word of the passage of time. Earth had dwindled away to a bluish star, while Mars got infinitesimally larger each day, ahead of them to starboard. (“Starboard?” she wrote. “What a funny word to apply out here. There’re stars everywhere!”)

On Earth, it was March. Samantha reported that they were in real-time radio communication with Mars now. The Red Planet grew closer, and the passengers aboard the Cycler were busy preparing to disembark.  On March 29, Arthur received a message that they had moved into the taxi for a seven-day trip down to a space station orbiting near Phobos, leaving the untended Cycler behind to make its long, slow swing back to Earth to pick up a new group of travelers. Dozens of photos of Mars began to arrive in Arthur’s inbox. In one, Samantha had posed beside a porthole window through which the dull orange Martian horizon showed. She looked pale and a bit thin, but happy.

They arrived at the space station, and, after two days of preparations and anxious waiting, they boarded a bullet-shaped shuttle for the final journey to the surface. “We’re off,” came a brief, typed message to Arthur’s watch on April 6. “Assuming all goes well, we’ll be touching down in Chryse Planitia in six hours. Contact you then.”

Assuming all goes well. If it didn’t, a distress signal would reach Earth eight-and-a-half minutes after emission. Arthur didn’t want to think about how the most dangerous part of a six month voyage was the last twenty minutes, when the shuttle would blast through the thin Martian atmosphere.

Six hours later, just after midnight, a video message arrived. There was Samantha’s face, strangely close up and distorted, with odd knobs and tubes around it. It took him a moment to realize he was seeing her through her spacesuit helmet camera.

“We’re here!” she was saying happily. “The landing was beautiful. Now we’re out, on the surface, at Chryse Station. It’s sunrise here. I’m in gravity again! Martian gravity is awesome. Here, take a look.” The image switched to an outward-looking camera, and she pointed out several inflatable and cylindrical structures clustered on a rusty orange plain littered with small rocks. “Well, I’ve got to go now; I’ll send you more later. Love you, darling!” The recording ended.

Arthur exhaled and felt his body relax fully for the first time in months. She was on Mars, and she was safe. Now, he just had to wait four and a half years until she came home.

*    *    *

The doorbell rang. Arthur opened the door to the hot July sunshine. A delivery robot stood there, holding a brown cardboard parcel in its three metal arms.

“Package for Arthur McLaren, sir. Signature is requested by sender,” said the robot.

“That’s me,” replied Arthur. He touched his watch to the robot’s data-collection port, waiting a moment for the identification signal to transmit. Then the robot handed him the box and departed.

Arthur brought it inside and set it on the kitchen counter. He paused when he saw the sender’s label. Interspace Postal Service branch 001, Kennedy Space Center, Florida. He opened the box curiously.

Within it was a locked black crate as wide as his forearm. It bore two labels. One read, Gateway Interspace Postal Service branch 021: cleared for Earth entry. The other declared, in simple black lettering, Phobos Station Customs: cleared for Martian export IPS auth code 087723. He unlocked the crate with his watch, hands trembling a bit.

The crate was filled with a light, foamy padding material that cradled two objects: a small plastic box and a translucent acetate envelope. For Arthur, read a handwritten label on the envelope. He opened it and removed a single sheet of acetate, covered in writing.

Chryse Station, Mars

Mars Year 48, sol 101

(December 17, 2043)

Dear Arthur,

I hope you are doing well back on Earth. I hope the garden is beautiful. When you get this, it will be summer on Earth and Mars. Now, it is spring here, and a week before Christmas on Earth. We’ve printed out a green plastic Christmas tree here at the station and set it up in our recreation hall. It’s funny how we try to hold onto little pieces of home.

You know how things are going here. Strangely, we will have exchanged many more messages between when I write this and when it reaches you, so this will be coming to you from the past. That’s the strangeness of our position: it feels like we’re caught between centuries, surrounded by modern technology, yet so far away from true civilization that our voyages and commerce could be compared with justice to the old sailing ships. I feel like one of Magellan’s sailors on the other side of the globe. Only Magellan was wholly isolated, while we are caught in the middle of fifteen-minute-old news from Earth. We can hear everything, and touch nothing.

That’s why I’m sending this to you. I feel like there’s a need to bridge this “immense ethereal gulf” (to quote Orson Welles) with something more than flying electrons. I wish I could have you here to hold close to me on Mars, but since I can’t, I’ll do the next best thing. I’ll send a little bit of Mars back to you. You’ll find it in the box.

In three years, I’ll be back on Earth, and I can see snow falling from the sky and green leaves on the trees. I miss it. But you know what I miss most? The wind in my hair. You don’t even think about it on Earth, but we never experience it here. The insides of our habitats have only the constant draft of the life-support systems, and outside we have to be encased against the air that would kill us.

So until I return and can hold you myself, my love, hold my gift close. I will be thinking of you, and watching a certain blue star that sets in the west each night. Merry Christmas!

Yours forever and wherever,

Samantha

Arthur opened the box. Within, cocooned in more of the same foamy packing, was a small, unglazed clay sculpture of Santa Claus and a reindeer. He ran his fingertips over the slightly rough clay. Martian clay. In one place on the base of the figurine, Samantha had pressed her thumb to leave a print. The whorls and rings of her skin stood out, evidence that a human hand had touched this. He stroked the mark gently, tenderly. Then he carefully held the statue to his heart and closed his eyes. His thought drifted into the universe to encompass two planets, red and blue, spinning through space.

Earth and the Moon photographed from Mars orbit by the HiRISE camera. Image courtesy of NASA.

This photograph of Earth and the Moon was taken October 3, 2007 from the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter as it orbited the Red Planet. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.