“Last chance for water until Jupiter.”
The sign had been made in jest, but it had been true, and now it was a joke again, because all the water was gone.
Under the particle board desk, Fallon shook her canteen, and a few precious ounces sloshed around, coating the metal sides. The flask on her hip, however, was full. Of whiskey. There was always plenty of whiskey.
And where the water went, the humans followed, and nearly all had left save for a few hardy stragglers catching the last few ships headed into the abyss. People were seeking the light, like tiny heads of seedlings germinating under soil. Meanwhile, Nevada was fulfilling its destiny of becoming a desert wasteland — and maybe millions of years into the future, Fallon thought, it would return to its primordial state and become enveloped by water again, with giant monsters swimming in its depths. It was unthinkable to her. But, then again, so was living on Jupiter.
Sunlight filtered through the glass walls of the toll booth, which was perched at the top of a small hill once dubbed Rattlesnake Mountain. Where there was just once a blinking red light to guide airplanes at night, it was now a portal to the universe. Within the booth sat Fallon, where dust and skin and hair met to form a very tan human being, and it didn’t matter that her hair was actually black, or that her eyes were green, or that her skin was pale and freckled. The dust permeated everything, a thick coat over her life. She gave up trying to escape it, keeping her hair tightly bound at the nape of her neck. It had been many years since she felt the soft curls bounce around her face, free and unbridled.
She peered through the dirty glass. The sunlight filtered through it, trapping her like an insect under a magnifying glass. It was like a giant eye was watching her directly, trying to make her squirm in the heat.
Someone had uploaded more than a terabyte of history textbooks and documents to the library portal — a last digital purge before leaving, as the travelers would want as much device storage as possible to document the trip “out East.” Jupiter wasn’t really “east,” of course. Cartessian coordinates didn’t apply to planets other than Earth. Fallon thought of it as out. Far. Beyond. But the phrase stuck, and Fallon found it ironic, since pioneers usually ventured out west. Space was far from the final frontier. For humanity, it was now just the beginning.
Fallon thought of it as out. Far. Beyond.
She’d downloaded all of the historical texts onto her tablet, on which storage was quickly waning. But she wasn’t going anywhere, and she was trying to ignore the stickiness inside her parched mouth. She took a sip of whiskey and swallowed with her lips pressed tight against her teeth. Grit found its way in anyway, and she coughed from the burn.
In Daily Life of the Vikings, she learned that beer was the primary sustenance for Viking sailors. It met the need for food and water while out on the sea, adrift and surrounded by salt and ice. Whiskey was far more dehydrating than beer, but she liked the thought anyway, that she was surviving the way ancient people did in times of hardship.
There were so few travelers this week that she finished Daily Life of the Vikings within a matter of hours, and was well into Vikings: Life, Death and the Afterlife.
She had a lot more time to read these days.
At first it was just a part-time, post-college summer job, validating the one-way tickets for the travelers heading out. Had she studied engineering, she could have been an assistant pilot on the ships, or perhaps an architect on the new settlement, or a radio operator, or a farmer on the new planet.
But she studied history, and the job gave her ample time to read, so it was basically her dream job. Her father would have rolled his eyes, commenting (not for the first time) that she didn’t aspire for much, did she? Content to just let the world fly by, revolve around her, without her. It was true she had always been like that, living in her head. But she was a simple woman with simple needs, and being a booth operator suited her just fine. And for a while it was job security, as everyone and their mother was abandoning ship, so to speak, and hightailing it out into the galaxy. Terraformed Jupiter was lush and wet and so much larger than Earth. Clean, shiny, new.
The dust storm enveloped the glass booth, whistling and slapping against the sides of it, and she felt submerged inside a very noisy fish tank. And like a fish, leaving it without her eco-mask would mean gasping for air, and getting a mouthful of dust instead.
Inside the booth, the sounds were muffled. The sound of the wind used to make her anxious, but it was no longer superimposed onto the chatter of travel. The planet was nearly empty now, and it was so quiet. Fallon was resolute in her loneliness; her roots had extended far into the aridisol. She envisioned herself as a cactus: prickly on the outside, hoarding water in the inside, with tiny limbs reaching into the heat.
The sun was still high in the sky, and she was so engrossed in her book that she didn’t notice that a break in the storm was approaching, and outside the booth stood a man.
A man with a robust gray mustache and a cowboy hat tapped on the glass.
Fallon started at the tap. She set her tablet down, disgruntled to be interrupted while in mid-sentence — Much like the ancient Greeks, the Vikings had neither a positive or negative view of the afterlife — but she was startled by two things: that there was someone still lingering around outside the spacecraft bridge, and that he wasn’t wearing an eco-suit.
She cracked open the door, grateful for new air, and poked her head out. He was smoking a cigarette (who still smokes in this place? she thought), and she resisted the urge to wave away the tendrils that emanated from the glowing tip. The scent of it evoked a memory of her mother, smoking on the balcony under eucalyptus trees while it rained outside. The memory, awash in wet and moody colors of blue and green, left as soon as it arrived. The man tipped his hat at her, and tossed his finished cigarette to the ground. He stamped it, and within seconds, he pulled out another one.
“Dust storm comin’ in,” he said, peering into the sky, squinting.
“Pretty sure it’s been here for a while,” Fallon said. She followed his gaze, confused, and turned back to the man. “I’m sorry, can I help you?”
“I’m here to take over your shift,” he said, still looking upward.
“My shift isn’t over. And I don’t know you.”
“No matter.” Finally, he met her eyes. “This is the last ship.”
“I’m aware.” Fallon pursed her lips. “You can head on.”
“Well, then.” He looked at the cigarette, pinched between his thumb and index. “Don’t think they’ve cultivated tobacco out east. Better enjoy this while I got it.”
A full minute passed in silence. Fallon was growing more impatient by the second. She felt the ground vibrate; the engines of the ship were warming up. The bridge would be closing soon.
“Not to be rude, but you might want to get a move on,” she told the man, who gave no indication that he was in any hurry. “Do you have a ticket?”
“Ah, yes.” With his cigarette dangling from his mouth, he pulled the boarding pass from his shirt pocket and handed it her. Fallon stamped the corner, the teal Bound for Jupiter seal bright and stark against the muted environment.
She pointed to the west, where the bridge to the spacecraft was visible in the distance. “Bridge is that way. Scan your ticket to get in.”
He considered her. In the heat and under his gaze, Fallon felt like she was being X-rayed.
“Would you mind accompanying me?” he asked. “These knees aren’t what they used to be.”
She glanced at her tablet, open to mid-sentence in mid-chapter in mid-book, and hesitated before acquiescing. Fallon pulled her eco-mask over her face, and snapped it to the collar of her vest. The respirator hummed in her ears. She grabbed her satchel, too, which contained the key to the toll booth.
“It’s this way.”
The bridge was about half a mile from the toll booth, and the roughly-hewn dirt path to it was littered with last minute discards: tote bags, broken toys, empty water canteens, even eco-masks. There’d be no need for those on Jupiter. The air was clean and not yet polluted. Sand lined the beaches of the many, many lakes and oceans; it wouldn’t embed itself into people’s nostrils and lungs.
The man walked slowly, as if taking in the environment around him — the open and empty sky, the Sierras looming in the distance. She wanted to ask him, Won’t you miss this?
She wanted to ask that to everyone who passed through the booth, but she never did. It was only she who wallowed in what was being left behind. Who would look after the mountains and libraries, Machu Picchu, the pyramids of Egypt? These testaments to humanity and what it stood for? What was a future without those links to the past?
She wanted to ask him, Won’t you miss this? She wanted to ask that to everyone who passed through the booth.
At last the bridge appeared before them. He tossed his cigarette into the dirt and stamped it, another remnant left behind. She scanned his boarding pass on the outside of the ship. Green light, and a beep, and the door slid open.
“Bon voyage,” she said, saluting. “This is where I leave you.”
But the man said nothing. Whatever, dude, she thought, but as she moved to leave, he pushed her roughly into the tunnel, and she stumbled and fell.
With a movement that looked too fluid for a man his age, he turned on his heel, slammed the red button with his fist, and the glass door slid shut behind her.
The airlock sealed instantly, and Fallon scrambled to her feet.
“Let me out!” The glass didn’t move as she beat at it with her fists. It was made many layers thick to withstand an interplanetary journey, and it served as a viewing bridge while the ship was traveling. “No! Please! I don’t want to leave!”
She needed out. She needed to touch the ground, to cling to the sagebrush. She needed her books, her mother’s clothes in the box in her closet that still smelled like her. She needed her bed and her toolbox and her tiny apartment. Because Earth was Fallon’s childhood, her origin, her beginning and end. Earth was her mother, her mother who died long before the water started to run out, and she was buried in the depths of the desert, and she was part of the planet. When the dust embedded itself into her skin and her hair, Fallon felt her mother’s presence. How could she ever leave, when that is what she was leaving behind?
But the man said nothing, emoted nothing as she sobbed against the glass. He continued to squint at her as he had squinting at the sky — passive, analytical, thoughtful. And the vibrations of the ship began to signal its departure, the bridge was pulled into the ship, and her voice was hoarse, and it was all futile.
The man held up his hand, a farewell gesture. The ship started to leave the ground, and the panic swelled in her, and she was overcome with grief, and she couldn’t breathe —
And within moments, the ship was flung out of the atmosphere and into the black.
The man waited until the woman on the ship was long out of sight before lowering his arm. He wasn’t concerned by the final look on her face — the betrayal, fear, devastation, panic. It was better this way. One day of living under rain, a life she had never known, and she would begin to heal.
And he was selfish; he wanted to be alone with his daughter, to be the last of the Earthlings.
The sun was setting, and the shadow of Rattlesnake Mountain darkened the empty path before him. So he stepped into the booth, and lit another cigarette with the glass door cracked open.
He wanted to be the last of the Earthlings.
He pulled a picture frame from his satchel, and set it on the desk. A picture of a young girl smiled back at him, her long, dirty blonde hair draped over one shoulder in a fishtail braid. He remembered when she tried to teach him how to braid, his rough hands fumbling to twist the silky strands together. He knew she would have killed him for smoking so many cigarettes in a row.
The thought was immediately followed by an angry gust of dust against the booth. It stung his eyes. That girl always had a temper. But he just smiled back at his daughter, and kicked up his feet, settling in for what he was sure would be a very long rest.
“It’s just you and me now, kiddo.”
Space was dark, and quiet.
The eager travelers talked in hush tones, like they were collectively holding their breaths. In her pod, Fallon pulled her knees to her chest and looked out into the nothingness — she knew it wasn’t really nothingness, but everything that mattered to her was millions of miles away, and everything that wasn’t there meant nothing.
Space was dark, and quiet.
But the day had come, when the sight of a new blue orb punctured the endless black. At first it was so small, and every moment they hurdled toward it made it larger in her vision. The sheer scale of Jupiter was unfathomable. The planet was in full view as the ship began its descent, and the captain’s voice said, “Welcome home.”
But home is where my mother is, Fallon thought. Home was Earth, and she was made from the substances of Earth — water and dust and love, and she carried them with her, through time and space.
I must become my own home now.
The ship hovered for a moment, then settled onto the ground, where it would remain. Through the spacecraft window, Fallon saw so much rain, and green. The planet was alive with new life, ferns unfolding into the light. And she was met with dense humidity, gripping her like a hug, as the pod bay doors opened into the new world. She was birthed into the delta, pushed along from the river of space, and was suddenly awash in comfort.
Her home planets, new and old, were connected via orbit, all made from the same star stuff and chemistry to form the galaxy in which she resided. And the journey had made her just one more explorer sailing in the night, like a Viking, wary of her new destination. The ocean of humanity was all sourced from the same pool.
She pulled on her satchel, still covered with the dust of Earth, and stepped out into the cool rain of Jupiter.
Author’s note: This story was inspired by NASA’s Visions of the Future poster series, one in particular that features the famous the Reno arch here in Reno, Nevada. I was intrigued by the sign hanging from it that read, “Last chance for water until Jupiter.” My goal for this story was to write something very simple that evoked the feeling of a Twilight Zone episode, so I pulled from familiar tropes and archetypes.
This story pairs well with: Water, obviously, and this song.