Joan was anxious. She had not seen her husband in nearly two years. They wrote to each other regularly, of course, but the light delay between Olympus Mons and Toronto being anywhere between five and twenty minutes made face-to-face communication impossible. Her decision to leave David on Earth had been a painful one, but she was surprised and even a little saddened by the difficulty she found in leaving her research behind. She felt guilty, selfish even, but they both knew she would not be content sitting behind a desk, analyzing telemetry sent back by other, braver souls; she belonged in the field, climbing eons-dead volcanoes on an alien planet in an atmospheric suit, surveying, extracting core samples, dating them, piecing together the history of a dead world. She didn’t feel as guilty about leaving him behind for her career as she did about the fact that she could do it so easily, without hesitation. This guilt was what had spurred her to return; she owed it to David to be there for his big day. Her anxiety arose from the distance, the time apart. Her husband could be a completely different person, how much had he changed in two years? Would time have healed old wounds, old grudges? Did she even still love him? Joan was indeed anxious.
He would be meeting her in orbit, naturally. The Hyperion project’s latest flight would launch from the Tyson Interplanetary Hub; this being the project’s first manned mission, it was a momentous occasion. The TIH would be lousy with press and IASA bigwigs, eager to witness firsthand man’s first superluminal journey. There would be scant time for catching up; between the launch preparations and the press events, Joan expected little in the way of personal time with her husband over the next few days.
David was the theoretical muscle behind the whole project. The Hyperion propelled itself through space utilizing his scribblings, a modified solution to the Einstein Field Equations that successfully incorporated quantum mechanics, a mathematical marvel for which he eventually earned his Nobel Prize. His theory made testable predictions about, among other things, a harmonic resonance in spacetime, resulting in variable curvature, negative or positive, at shockingly low energy densities. Joan didn’t quite understand the details; planetary geologists did not regularly work with Riemann manifolds or tensor algebra very often, though she recognized the staggering implications of his discovery. Upon publication, the reaction to his paper was muted. David was an obscure Canadian adjunct professor, so hardly anyone read it. That was ten years ago.
Slowly, the paper got around. More and more physicists passed it to each other and, like good scientists, tried to find flaws or errors in the math; the results seemed too good to be true. As a year passed and the equations tenaciously eluded refutation, a small team at CalTech interferometrically confirmed its predictions, the results of which were then reproduced in Geneva and Kashiwa. This rocked the scientific community and revived an idea, over a century old, long since abandoned as fanciful and impractical for its ludicrous energy requirements and the necessity of hypothetical “exotic matter” with negative mass: the Alcubierre, or “warp”, drive.
David’s rise to celebrity was swift, and his responsibilities grew. There was a rush among the governments of the world to militarize this project, jeopardizing the very treaties that kept space apolitical and threatened the existence of the IASA; a cold war for control of the solar system and its vast resources was in the making. He then had to become an advocate, lobbyist and diplomat. For eighteen months, the battle waged. Concessions were made; deals were brokered; hot heads gradually cooled. The result was an international agreement to develop the drive openly and with global support. The IASA would build and develop the drive; a cooperative effort among the finest minds in the field, representative of the world as a whole, led by none other than the genius whose equations made all of this possible.
This time was a rather difficult one for Joan. She did not much care to share her husband with the world, no matter how badly the world needed him. His work was important, perhaps the most important endeavor humanity has ever embarked upon, yet she felt a cold loneliness in their home in Toronto. He was home only briefly and sporadically, coming and going at different times of day, often in the middle of the night, hopping flights from Zürich, Johannesburg, Tokyo, New York, Moscow, wherever he was needed. He would spend weeks at a time living out of suitcases, never coming home. Joan found herself sleeping in her office to avoid the disturbing emptiness on the other side of her bed. She threw herself into her work, poring over composite maps and satellite data. In the years that followed, she learned how to live as an island, to be emotionally self-sufficient.
It was in Stockholm, the night of the Nobel ceremony, that David learned of her acceptance of a position with the Martian Geological Survey. At the banquet, seated to the right of the Queen of Goddamned Norway, he was strangely cold with her, not at all himself. It wasn’t until they returned to their guest suite that the bomb was dropped. Joan had kept it a secret, not wanting to spoil David’s moment of triumph, but the bureaucrat in charge of the program had let it slip to him over aperitifs. An argument commenced, terrible and emotionally charged. Names were called; accusations leveled. For eight years, their marriage had gathered tension. In fifteen minutes, all that potential energy was messily converted into heat, sound, and tears. She grabbed her suitcase and left, flew to Toronto, packed her bags, and left for TIH the following Monday. The two of them hadn’t spoken in person since. They made something of a reconciliation over mail, but there was a detachment about their relationship afterwards; it was all so… impersonal.
So it was that Joan was brought out of her reverie by a sudden mild deceleration: the thrusters killed the last tiny scrap of the ship’s relative velocity with the station. A distant dull clang told her that docking was complete. The rotation of the ring had been gradually sped up over the course of her eight-week voyage, to better acclimatize passengers to the g-change, and it had been the worst. For the entire trip, she had felt bloated and weak; she would often stumble, unused to walking after years of that buoyant lope that characterized ambulation on a smaller planet. She at last had found respite during docking maneuvers, while the habitat ring’s rotation was nulled out and the illusion of Earth gravity subsided. She grabbed her suitcase and floated out of her room. This was it.
David met her outside the airlock; she saw him before he saw her. His hair was a little grayer, his eyes more careworn. He looked tired and thin, but still as handsome as ever. He had grown a beard; Joan would have to talk to him about that. Their eyes met, and recognition dawned on his face. Without thinking, the two of them lightly launched from the wall. They met in the middle of the room, orbiting each other like binary stars as they embraced. The contact was long overdue.
“David, you look like hell!”
“You don’t look too bad for a girl who just put on seventy pounds.”
The joke was lame, and at another time she would have said so. Instead she just laughed and held him tighter. It was relief; it was joy; it was home. She still loved him.