Three years after Carl and Mary met, they prepared to walk across the commencement platform one more time.  Friends since their junior year of college, they shared a common goal.  Both were determined to visit earth.

Through two years of graduate work they shared an apartment.  Yet as many hours as they spent together studying, no romantic connection was ever formed.  Both were driven to achieve a dream.  Eventually they discovered more in common than the goal of returning to their ancestral home world.  They shared a terrible secret that would disqualify them from any hope of leaving Mars.

Space travel no longer required the demanding credentials of pioneer astronauts.  High school drop outs could catch passage on a flight if they could show reason.  It could be a family connection.  Or a job contract.  The only factor limiting travel anywhere in the solar system was the small number of ships in service.  And tourism was very low on the list for preferred seating.

So Carl had set out to be a master engineer in the aerospace industry.  Mary, a bio-chemist with a master’s degree in Alternate Gravitations.  With those qualifications, she could serve as a physician anywhere on any of the planetary colonies.

When the ceremony drew to a close, Carl and Mary shared a knowing look.  It would take one application, then two to six months of waiting before they were given a berth on the next flight.  For that short time, they would lean on each other and pray they would be granted passage together.  Side by side, they could help each other quietly cope with their fear of small, enclosed spaces.  An ordeal that would last two months on the fastest ship.  Three on the slowest.

Good news came much sooner than expected.  Carl was called up just days after submitting his application.  His qualifications were a perfect match to resolve a mechanical issue at an aging section of the space port.  If he would do the job, he could get passage on any of the next three ships headed for earth.  As a condition for accepting the contract, he was able to have Mary booked alongside him.

The short trip to the station was discomforting.  With the help of mental exercises Mary had taught him, he staved off panic.  A major center for commerce and shipping, the station was four times the size of the World Trade Center complex in Manhattan.  Wide open courtyards, spacious offices and vast storage units were evidence of great wealth derived from the martian colonies.

But Carl’s assignment wasn’t on the main station.  Twenty miles below, a pharmaceutical processing laboratory was hemorrhaging power.  A new energy source had already been delivered, but someone trained in the latest technology was needed to disengage the old system and install the new.

One look at the shuttle tube made his heart race.  But he was assured it was a quick five minute trip to the lab.  Determined, he climbed in, shut his eyes ignored the sound of the hatch closing and turned his thoughts on the details of his assignment.

In place of another spacious station, the confines of the lab offered little relief from the snug capsule that carried him there.  One long walkway was high enough that he could stand upright, stretch out and move around with relative freedom.  But vast walls of machinery cramped his shoulders as he walked to the damaged unit.  The facility was an automated plant, never meant for human habitation.

Three hours later, the new unit was installed and working at peak efficiency.  Carl had mustered the resolve to climb back in the shuttle when the station’s traffic controller contacted him.  “Sun spots,” the voice told him.  “Shuttle navigation won’t work until the activity clears.”

“How long?” Carl asked.

“Not sure.  Will contact you as soon as we have an estimate.”

On the red planet below, Mary closed the door on the apartment and left for the transfer port.  She knew Carl was on an assignment and wasn’t worried when he didn’t make contact before she flew out.  The air skiff was a new model and she focused her mind on learning the details of the new craft.  Its life support components were unfamiliar.

She had time to explore the station before the Earth transport was scheduled to depart.  After a quick tour of the garden courtyard she made her way to the docking ring and sat down at a dining station.  Its marquee boasted the station’s best teriyaki, but it was run by a Scotsman and the chicken was more salt than meat.  She had no complaint.  After years of preparation, she was on the verge of realizing her lifelong dream.  Her phobia had so far been no more than a minor discomfort on the trip to the station.  She paid her bill and hurried toward the departure gate, anxious to reunite with her friend.  He’d made sure their berths were adjoining.

As passengers began their boarding routine, a medical team rushed past the line to the neighboring port.  The team was ready and waiting as a shuttle tube arrived.  They opened the compartment and lifted its occupant onto a gurney.  Ready to lend her expertise, Mary watched and listened.  They strapped down the subject and started a line of saline.  She could see arms and legs flailing in the air.  His face was blocked from her view, but she couldn’t mistake Carl’s voice spouting gibberish.

“Must be space sickness of some sort,” one of the nurses said.

“No,” another one said.  “I recognize these symptoms.  He’s claustrophobic.  Managed to beat the screening somehow.  People just don’t realize how dangerous that is.”

“How long was he down there?”

“Eight days.”

And as they rolled him past the line of passengers boarding the Earth transport, Mary saw the wide, vacant look in her friend’s eyes.  She stepped out of line and stared after them until an attendant shouted, “Final call!”  In time, Carl would recover, but he would never see his dream.  Now was her one chance.  Could she do it?

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