by Mark Brazaitis
The first trouble was the boy.
Mike Little said he was lonely. He missed his parents and his brother. He missed his bedroom. He missed the café at the corner of the two busy streets where he used to meet his girlfriend after school. This was, of course, before she broke up with him. He was with us because she’d broken up with him, he confessed. He wanted to show her he didn’t need her—he wanted to show her he didn’t need her or the entire earth.
He’d had every legal right to join us. He was eighteen. Of course, he’d lied on his application. He said the reason he wanted to emigrate to the Blue Planet was because he believed in our ideals. He wanted to be part of our Special Society.
We were only two weeks into our one-year, one-way voyage and he wanted to go home.
He understood what he’d committed to, however. He’d signed the paperwork. There was no going home.
He protested by banging his fists against everything: his bedroom walls, the tables in our cafeteria, the stomach of our physician, Dr. George Warner, who tried to calm him with kind words and a syringe.
Mike Little was keeping us up when we were supposed to be asleep. Worse, he was heightening our own anxiety about the people and planet we’d left. We needed him to be a team player. Or at the very least, we needed him to be quiet. We encouraged Samantha Xavier to intervene.
Samantha, who was Mike’s age, wanted to understand what we meant by “intervene.”
“Talk to him,” one of us said.
“Soothe him,” another of us said.
“For God’s sake,” a third voyager on the Great Destiny, our spacecraft, said, “if you have to be his girlfriend, be his girlfriend.”
Samantha balked. The reason she wanted to leave earth—the reason we all did, she reminded us—was because our birth planet had become as much a moral as an environmental morass. We were leaving earth in order to found a world based on the rock-solid principles we knew to be right and good. We had, in fact, all signed, and agreed to abide by, a document we’d composed titled the Principles of Right and Good.
“You want me to sleep with him only so you can sleep,” she said. “I don’t even like him.”
Eventually, Mike’s tantrums ceased, replaced by a sullen sluggishness. Neglecting his work duties aboard the Great Destiny, he left his bedroom only to eat. Despite our cheerful efforts in the cafeteria, he never smiled or said much more than “Are we there yet? Are we fucking there yet?”
Extramarital affairs were forbidden on the Great Destiny as they would be on the Blue Planet. In order to be permitted onto our spacecraft, married couples had to repeat their vows in front of all of us. We’d denied a place to one couple when the man in the pair had hesitated in affirming his commitment to his wife. We might have been too rigid in our judgment: we later learned the man had a stuttering problem.
The prohibition against extramarital affairs didn’t, eight weeks into our voyage, deter Steven Adams and Eva Mize who, at an hour at which we were all supposed to be asleep, were found unclothed and entangled in the Children’s Playroom. Specifically, they were discovered in Cloud Land, which featured large, billowy white pillows and a sky-soft azure carpet. Ironically, they were discovered by a pair of middle-aged husbands, Max Ryder and Anthony Arradzoni, who were on their way to engage in their own tryst. The discovery of Mr. Adams’s and Mrs. Mize’s interlude convinced them to forgo their own—at least for twenty-four hours, when they, too, were caught, in the same location and in the same state of undress.
Although our Principles of Right and Good was detailed in what it forbade, it offered no rules to redress any infractions. In the case of Mr. Ryder and Mr. Arradzoni, a solution proved simple, as the men’s wives agreed, with perhaps too much alacrity, to become roommates, thereby allowing their husbands to do the same. But Mr. Adams’s and Mrs. Mize’s spouses did not volunteer a similar solution and they both soon joined Mike Little in pleading to return to earth.
Stealing, particularly of food, was next-to-unthinkable, as we had stocked the Great Destiny with enough supplies and foodstuff for a journey twice as long as ours was scheduled to be. Once we arrived on the Blue Planet, there would be no need for any of earth’s tired canned goods or processed cereals and chips. Our new world was a paradise of wild fruit trees, abundant and edible vegetation, and fish-filled rivers. Of course, there would be no red meat, which is the excuse Frank Tanner offered when he was caught sneaking from our communal kitchen with six cases of beef jerky. “I’m a beef-jerky junkie,” he admitted. “Help me.” In a conversation with Dr. Warner, however, Mr. Tanner confessed that he was less a beef-jerky junkie and more a vegetable hater. “The last time I ate anything green,” he admitted, “was when it was force-fed to me out of a glass jar when I was in my highchair.”
In the absence of any other requests for beef jerky, we decided to allow Mr. Tanner to keep the entire stock. Save the potent cowboy-like smell that filled up a room whenever he entered it, our solution was satisfactory to all except Mike Little, who said, “How come he gets what he wants and I don’t?”
We assumed people would remain sentimentally attached to their religions, although our move to a new planet in a different solar system would, we believed, cast a healthy skepticism on earth-based systems of beliefs. Regardless, our Principles of Right and Good made clear that it, and not the Bible or the Torah or the Koran, was to be the foundational document of our new world. This didn’t discourage Mitch Anderson and Sam Richards, who announced that they would be commencing their Mormon missions once we landed on the Blue Planet, or Sarah Pendleton, who routinely visited our rooms in order to press upon us copies of The Watchtower.
Reluctantly, some of us taped “No Soliciting” signs to our doors. Mike Little’s sign was more direct: “Leave Me the Fuck Alone!”
Although we had been unsuccessful in recruiting Africans or African-Americans on our voyage, we were nevertheless clear, in our Principles of Right and Good, about our abhorrence of racism and our belief in the equality of all people. We envisioned a society in which, after a mere couple of generations, there would be but a single Blue Planet race. It was inevitable, however, that, despite our professed enlightenment, old insensitivities would linger. At dinner one night, Cynthia Hardy, obviously bored with her plate of pasta, turned to Jane Yoo and said, “Do you think you could maybe cook us up some Chinese tomorrow?” Politely, Ms. Yoo pointed out that her origins were Korean, but Ms. Hardy, perhaps in a poor attempt at humor, said, “Same continent, right?”
We’d explicitly prohibited gambling, but during a poker game in the Meditation Room, Peter Henderson won from Abe Finklestein not only his gold-handled conductor’s baton (Mr. Finklestein was scheduled to lead the Blue Planet String Quartet’s performance of “Ode to Joy” upon our landing) but the rights to half his property on our soon-to-be-colonized new world.
The next morning, Mr. Finklestein declared his losses void—he’d been drunk during the poker game, he said.
As with adulterers, our Principles of Right and Good were silent on the question of how to penalize gamblers. And there was no language whatsoever in our Principles about alcohol, as alcohol had been prohibited on our spacecraft. (Mr. Henderson had created a moonshine out of what most of us viewed as an unsavory combination of cabbage, corn, and mouthwash, although the mention of intoxicants provoked in some of us sentimental reminiscences about favorite college bars and summer sojourns in Napa Valley.)
If Mr. Finklestein didn’t pay off his bet, Mr. Henderson declared, he would be a “dead man.” We had not, in our Principles of Right and Good, anticipated the possibility of murder. We were, after all, a small community. There were only 127 of us on the Great Destiny—a sufficiently large number, we believed, for genetic diversity but a sufficiently small number to ensure community harmony. In leaving earth in pursuit of everlasting peace and civility, we had made a major and irrevocable decision, itself an inviolate commitment, we believed, to goodness and rightness.
But the society we had envisioned was, even before we’d reached the place where we would establish it, becoming polluted with our broken promises to each other and our naïve failure to anticipate such an eventuality. We called an emergency meeting in the Great Destiny’s Great Theater.
We all agreed: something had to be done. Otherwise, we were fools doomed to recreate what we’d fled. But the solutions we offered, from counseling to branding with appropriate letters (“A” for adulterer, for example) to imprisonment, were unoriginal, having been tried, and found wanting, on earth. To enact them would be a further admission of failure. We wanted nothing to do with earth’s shortcomings.
“We should turn this canoe around and go home,” declared Mike Little, who, now six-and-a-half months into our voyage, had grown taller and gaunter and sported a goatee reminiscent of a revolutionary. This time, Mike’s opinion was far from unique. But Jack Messersmith, the Great Destiny’s engineer, said it would be impossible to return even if we wanted to. We wouldn’t have sufficient fuel.
We fell into a simmering silence, each of us no doubt mulling solutions too controversial to express.
Mike Little was the first to disappear. When one day he failed to show up at both breakfast and lunch, we checked his room. It was empty. Hoping he might have connected romantically with Samantha Xavier after all, we rushed over to Cloud Land. It yielded only the Dobson boys, eight- and six-years old, who had become notorious for their vicious fraternal wars. We interrupted the older boy attempting to suffocate his brother with a pillow.
When we tracked down Samantha Xavier in her room, she was indignant. “If you wanted to know whether I was screwing him,” she said, “you could have asked.” She added, not without justification, “Screw you!”
The Great Destiny had a single, unalarmed emergency exit. Sadly, we concluded that Mike Little, by stepping out the door and into the vast, unbreathable universe, had killed himself.
It was harder to ascribe a similar motivation to Peter Henderson, who was next to disappear. Peter hadn’t been unhappy. In fact, he was looking forward to our arrival on the Blue Planet so he could assume his place as our new world’s largest landowner. Moreover, he’d offered himself as the most logical candidate for president of the Blue Planet—or, better yet, he said, king—when we decided to “give up on your perverse, people-powered utopia” and implement a “real government.”
In investigating Peter Henderson’s disappearance, we turned with suspicion to Abe Finklestein. Defending his innocence, Mr. Finklestein informed us that three additional voyagers had recently lost bets to Peter Henderson and would be arriving on the Blue Planet without a claim to their original allotment of land. One of the losing gamblers, Timothy O’Shea, had fallen so deep into debt that he’d agreed to spend his first seven years on our new world as Mr. Henderson’s indentured servant.
When we confronted Mr. O’Shea with what we’d learned, he said he had an alibi, albeit one he wasn’t proud of: He’d spent the entire period in which Mr. Henderson might have been forcefully exiled from the Great Destiny in Cloud Land with Samantha Xavier. “But we only talked,” Mr. O’Shea insisted.
“Not true,” said Samantha Xavier. “But who cares? When we land on the Blue Planet, Timmy is going to leave his wife and he and I are going to live on love.”
Alas, Mr. O’Shea didn’t make it as far as the Blue Planet. He was the next to go missing. Suspicion turned both to his wife and Samantha Xavier’s parents, but none of them confessed involvement.
We called another emergency meeting. Although our numbers hadn’t diminished significantly, the Great Theater nevertheless felt like a ghost town. We eyed each other as in a game of Wink Murder, wondering who in our once idealistic and happy party might be a killer, and expressed outrage, fear, and a deep sadness over the betrayal of our ideals.
But if only to ourselves and the people closest to us, we admitted to a strange kind of gratitude. Mike Little had become a burden, both because of his incessant whining and his refusal to fulfill any of the communal tasks, such as dishwashing, assigned to him. Meanwhile, Peter Henderson’s ambition to become president or, God help us, king of our new world was an affront to our dream of an egalitarian society. It was best, we thought, that his imperial ambition had been thwarted. Timothy O’Shea’s disappearance was harder to justify, although as both a gambler and an adulterer and, moreover, as someone whose idealism—to live on love alone!—exceeded, to a ludicrous degree, our own but nevertheless suggested serious problems with it, he was someone who never should have been allowed on the Great Destiny. His punishment was, of course, excessive, but if we held him up as an unfortunate example—a provocative warning of what wouldn’t be tolerated—his disappearance might serve a useful purpose.
Even so, we decided that extrajudicial measures (if we could use this phrase when we had no rules to address breaches of our Principles) must cease immediately. In order to ensure enforcement, we formed a four-member security committee to guard the Great Destiny’s emergency exit, with each member assigned a six-hour shift.
For a week, our plan succeeded. But on the eighth day, during the time assigned to him to guard the exit, Abe Finklestein disappeared. Panic set in, and we barricaded ourselves in our rooms, listening for unwelcome footsteps in the hallway. We might have hunkered down for days if Abe’s wife, Merle, hadn’t roused us with her theory about her husband’s disappearance. Abe, she confessed, had brought on board the Great Destiny a contraband box of cigars, and he’d been dying to smoke them ever since we’d left earth. Lately his craving had been profound. But after the debacle of his gambling losses, he didn’t want to risk exposing himself as twice a truant, she said. He may have seized an opportunity to blow smoke out of the open door and been sucked into space.
We were relieved. But, three days later, when we caught Merle in Cloud Land with Martin Fedelman, we had doubts. Had Merle exiled her husband to the stars in order to be with Martin?
Were we all capable of murder?
Our security committee, worried about its safety, disbanded. In waking hours, we looked over our shoulders. During sleeping hours, we barricaded our doors—they had no locks; we hadn’t anticipated needing them. If we were married, however, we didn’t sleep well. We didn’t know our spouses anymore. We didn’t know ourselves.
In the month before we landed on the Blue Planet, we lost two more of our travelers, Edna Adams and Sam Mize, the aggrieved spouses of our original adulterers. Reluctantly, they had been sharing a bedroom, as being in close proximity to their cheating spouses eventually had proved intolerable. However, they hated each other more than they hated their former partners. Their disputes were primarily political, which was odd because we had vowed to leave all politics behind. Sometimes, deep into our sleeping hours, we could hear them arguing about left-behind-on-earth controversies such as supply-side economics, voter ID laws, and graduated income taxes.
It was unclear whether they’d disappeared each other, perhaps during a struggle in front of the emergency exit, or whether another member of our party, tired of their debates, had contrived to banish them both to oblivion.
We remained on edge and sleepless until the day we landed on the Blue Planet.
The original plan, outlined in our Principles of Right and Good, had been to establish a society in which each of us was given the same amount of land in the most fertile valley of our new world. Food was no issue. Water was plentiful, and rain came predictably and gently. In the Great Destiny’s cargo area, we had brought with us dozens of pre-fab houses, although the Blue Planet also contained inhabitable caves, as warm as wombs.
But our mistrust of each other had grown profound, and upon landing, we broke apart, most often in pairs but occasionally in quartets, sextets, and octets, and, in several cases, solo, to stake out lives in disparate regions of the Blue Planet.
It is, perhaps, late in this tale to reveal who I am, and I do so knowing I am likely to be judged harshly since I was one of the first travelers to bring chaos to our noble experiment. I am Steven Adams, and I live with my lover, Eva Mize, on a beautiful expanse of land beside what we have named the Hope River.
In our first weeks here, Eva and I spoke with pity about the people we’d abandoned on earth. We imagined them thinking of us with envy and bitterness—we had, after all, left them to fend for themselves on a dangerous and dying planet. Nevertheless, we reveled without guilt in our blissful lives. In describing our new world to each other, we frequently used the word “perfect.” What on earth would have been hyperbole was on the Blue Planet simply fact. We foresaw a lifetime of joyful sameness. And for some small part of our lifetimes, we did, in fact, enjoy this wonderful state of static bliss.
It is, I think, several months later now. I have lost track of time, which is one of the luxuries of living on the Blue Planet, although sometimes I find myself turning my wrist, staring at the place my watch used to occupy, and feeling an inexplicable anxiety, as if I have missed an important appointment. Some time, anyway, has passed since our landing, and I still believe I am where I should be and that all is good and right. I still believe this—I have to—even after the events of this morning when, wanting to speak with Eva, who’d woken earlier than I, I wandered where I knew I would find her, deep in our garden. There she was, naked as sunrise, and as lovely as always. I approached her with my usual delight. But I stopped short when I heard her talking—to whom, I didn’t know. I couldn’t hear her words, but they were spoken with intimacy and urgency and, more troubling, a desperate curiosity.
Whatever she wanted to know, I didn’t. I turned from the scene at the same time she called my name, her tone modulated to convey innocence. She called me twice more before I was composed enough to turn back to her with a smile.
“Happiness,” she said, her usual greeting, but she spoke as if she was identifying a bird that had flown by and was unlikely to return.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, The Rink Girl: Stories, won the 2018 Prize Americana (Hollywood Books).